CHARLOTTE -- When Kurt Busch lost his Sprint Cup ride with Penske Racing at the end of last season, it wasn't for lack of performance. Rather, it was because of his noted temper.
The final straw in a season that contained several run-ins with other drivers and the media, as well as divorce proceedings, was an expletive-laced barrage at ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch during the final race of the season at Homestead, Fla.
Busch was ticked off that his day had ended early and he and his race car were in the garage area rather than still on the race track. His frustration boiled over when approached by Punch, who was merely doing his job, and the good doctor became a verbal punching bag -- no pun intended -- to Busch's verbal blue streak.
Fortunately for Busch, ESPN cameras didn't catch the tirade. Unfortunately for Busch, however, a fan with a garage pass did catch the outburst on his smart phone and then posted it to YouTube, where it became a viral monster of a hit -- and led to Busch's ouster from a team many thought he'd be with for the rest of his career.
Busch ultimately lost a great deal: his celebrated ride for legendary race car owner Roger Penske, a high-dollar sponsor in Miller Beer and the respect of both fans and those within the sport. To see how far the 2004 Sprint Cup champion had fallen was a sad commentary.
Busch got back on his feet when team owner James Finch offered him a ride for the 2012 season. It wasn't on the same level as Busch's two former Cup teams -- Penske Racing and, prior to that, Roush Fenway Racing (for which he won the championship) -- but it was a ride nonetheless and Busch was back in the game.
He knew he had done wrong and even agreed to go through anger management classes to get a handle on his temper.
Then came last Saturday's race at Darlington. After nary a peep from Busch in the season's first 10 races, Busch made a smoky burnout through the pit stall of former teammate Ryan Newman, potentially endangering some of Newman's crew members, who were still on pit road after servicing their driver's car a few seconds earlier.
At the end of the race, and after an on-track run-in between the two, Busch claims he inadvertently tapped the rear of Newman's car while taking off his racing helmet as they both slowed on pit road and appeared headed to the garage. That sent one of Newman's crew members into a frenzy, words and shoving were exchanged -- including a NASCAR official being sent flying over the hood of Busch's car -- and Busch ultimately was found guilty for bad conduct yet again by NASCAR. He was fined $50,000 and placed on probation until July 25.
When asked if perhaps NASCAR may be scrutinizing him too closely, that if another driver was involved in a similar incident, he might get nothing more than a warning, Busch admitted his reputation continues to draw scrutiny, last Saturday's incidents included.
"Is my strike zone bigger than others?" Busch said Friday. "Yeah, it might be a little bigger than others, but I don't have a problem with it."
He then added that not only will he pay the $50,000 fine out of his own pocket, but conceded that he has become NASCAR's most marked man.
"Absolutely (he'll personally pay the fine), I have all through my career," Busch said. "I've been fined probably the most out of any driver and I've probably paid it out of my pocket more than any driver."
Somehow, that doesn't seem to be something to be particularly proud of.
After hopes that Busch would be reformed after his long fall and resulting counseling, it appears he really hasn't changed or learned much from his old ways.
The question now is what happens to Busch from here? While it was pretty much conceded that his deal with Finch would be a one-year purgatory of sorts before Busch would bounce back with a top-level team in 2013, that scenario now appears somewhat clouded after the Darlington episode.
And with former teammate Newman potentially becoming a free agent at the end of this season if his current team, Stewart-Haas Racing, can't find sponsorship for Newman's team for next season, Busch's hopes of being the No. 1 free agent in NASCAR and having his pick of suitors may have hit a serious snag.
And his noted temper may exacerbate any chances of a Busch comeback next year.
One thing is for certain: Busch, who raced in Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race and is prepared to return to the regular schedule of racing in next week's Coca-Cola 600, the sport's longest race of the year, still has quite a way to go in changing his personality and cooling his temper.
That is, if he has changed even the least little bit at all. Which, based upon what he displayed at Darlington, shows that not only has he not learned his lesson, but that maybe he never will.