Turning point

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Back at Dover in June, Kurt Busch got into it with Tony Stewart when Stewart spun Busch, who got angry and decided to discuss it as Stewart was pitting.

As Busch pulled up alongside Stewart, however, he nearly hit one of Stewart's crew members. The guy had to adroitly leap onto Stewart's hood to avoid getting slammed.

Predictably, it was a big to-do; great video, major flare-up. NASCAR docked Busch 100 points, pundits screamed he should be parked for up to a month, and to the fans in the grandstands, it was just one more incident of Busch being Busch.

When he followed it up with a 16th, a 25th, a 22nd and a 21st, it looked like the 29-year-old had lost it, as a fresh wave of old drama would keep him out of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. It was supposed to be another example of his temper, his attitude getting in the way of his undeniable driving skill.

That was nine weeks, seven top-10s, two victories and, maybe most importantly, one enormous commitment to refocusing on the important things ago.

Where the summer scandal could have ruined an entire season and perpetuated a reputation, it instead served as an impetus for Kurt Busch to put his head down and just drive. And drive he did, all the way to a tie for fourth place in the standings as the Chase kicks off Sunday in New Hampshire.

"It definitely was a tough turning point and maybe in the past it would have made the team or myself crumble and not make some changes," Busch said Wednesday morning.

"It was a perfect example of, 'We've got to get it in gear and we've got to make this Chase.' It feels like an eternity ago that it did happen because of all the good things that have happened in between."

With Busch, there always seems to be something. He gets in feuds, he gets in fights. Who else could point to almost hitting a man with a car as the turning point of his season?

Of course, who knows if Busch ever would have made it in NASCAR if he wasn't like this? He hails not from the South, but Las Vegas. He didn't come from a famed family or with a great pedigree. He was an interloper from the West who had to bash his way into the sport with a brash, take-no-prisoner, fight-for-your-territory style. Had he ever backed down, he may have been backed right out of the sport.

So while he won races immediately, winning fans wasn't so easy.

Even when he won the Cup title in 2004, little changed. Since it was the first year of the new championship format, the establishment kept pointing out that under the old rules he wouldn't have been the champion. If nothing else, some fans rejected him as a way of rejecting the new system.

"If Kurt Busch does something people definitely want to look at it a different way," he said. "Let's just say if Carl Edwards had won it back in 2004, I think it might have been fine."

Probably. And probably that will never change. Busch once called NASCAR "a soap opera" that wanted different drivers to have different roles. His role was clear: villain. And without question, some of that was his own doing.

Perhaps the ultimate moment came near the end of the 2005 season when Busch was cited for reckless driving two days before a race in Phoenix. While he initially was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence, that proved to be a bogus accusation. That didn't stop his employer at the time, Roush Racing (which he was soon leaving anyway), from benching him on the spot and declaring itself "embarrassed."

The fun came during driver introductions on race day. Busch was replaced by driver Kenny Wallace, although the crowd didn't know it. So when the announcement began "and the driver of the No. 97 Ford … " a cascade of boos rained down.

When the introduction concluded with " … Kenny Wallace," there was a moment of stunned silence and then the place went absolutely nuts.

But this run of success has shown a different side of Busch. As loud as he has been on the track, he's been just as quiet off of it. No battles and little banging. He drives for Roger Penske now, the no-nonsense team owner who has worked hard to rein him in, while crew chief Pat Tryson, who came on just as Busch got hot, has his full confidence.

He admits to being smarter about a lot of things these days. And as an established star, not someone fighting for his career, he can relax a bit. He isn't going anywhere.

"Each year that passes you gain more experience, whether it is good or bad," he said. "And you develop as a person. I'll be the first to admit when I came in I didn't know much to do about anything when it came to professional sports or NASCAR.

"When there is a tough time you don't explode. You have to hunker down and say, 'You know, this is difficult, this is tough to accept.' But it is how you persevere with those hard times that make you a better person."

This season he took a potential calamitous event and used it to regroup. As he's shot up the standings, he's kept a relatively low profile – other than chugging Miller Lite in a couple of winner's circles.

Just this week he spoke excitedly about some upcoming fundraisers for the Kurt Busch Foundation he's hosting that include dinner, autographs, personal interaction and even riding shotgun as he hits 180 mph. He likes taking the fans inside the sport. Even more, he likes that the money is going to the Petty family's Victory Junction Camp that serves kids with chronic illness.

It's the side of him that's a long way from all those wild antics on the track, the ensuing wars in the press and the soap opera character he's famed for. He doesn't know if his reputation will ever change, but he doesn't seem concerned about it in the short term.

"For me, it is just going out there and punching the timecard every day and after 20 years of racing we'll see how it shakes out," he said.

Another title, a true come-from-behind, up-off-the-canvas effort, wouldn't hurt. He's not the favorite to win this thing. But he's not an underdog either. The way he's been driving, anything is possible.

"I consider us a threat," he said.

And not even to run anyone over on pit road. At least, we'd like to think.

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