Dumped by his last two major league teams, it seemed like Kurt Busch would always be a prisoner of his character – large in temper, short in fuse. But 2013 hasn't been about controversy: it's been about KuBu taking a small, Colorado-based NASCAR team to the giddy heights of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And now he's earned his way back into the big time.
In this day of social media and 24/7 news cycles, there's nothing American sports fans love to witness more than an entitled athlete getting shamed and cut down to size. Except maybe witnessing that same athlete getting up, dusting himself off and going back into the field of battle and competing successfully.
That, in a nutshell, is the Kurt Busch saga, circa 2013.
All the bad boy stuff from Busch's past? Yeah, it all happened, from getting his nose broken by Jimmy Spencer to telling a Phoenix cop he was only giving him a ticket because the cop was a punk and a Jeff Gordon fan, to getting up in Dr. Jerry Punch's face and cussing him two years ago at Homestead. It all happened. It's all part of Busch's Permanent Record.
And you know what? In the Year of Our Lord, 2013, none of it matters a whit, because Kurt Busch The Wheelman is back and he's done things with racecars this year that few of his rivals could equal. More importantly, he's reinvented himself and reinvigorated his career in a way that no one would have believed possible less than two years ago.
A quick recap: Busch won the first Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004, missing a pit wall by inches when his right-front tire came off during the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Less than a year later, Busch announced he was leaving what was then known as Roush Racing to join Roger Penske's outfit. But in the penultimate race of the 2005 season, Busch got into trouble at a traffic stop outside Phoenix International Raceway and was promptly fired by the team, with Roush President Geoff Smith famously announcing, “It's the last straw for Roush Racing. We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists, effective today.”
During his six subsequent seasons with Penske, Busch had his share of successes and failures, winning 11 races and finishing fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings in 2009, best among drivers not employed by Rick Hendrick. There were problems, too, including run-ins with other drivers and reporters, culminating at Homestead with Punch. Shortly thereafter, Penske and Busch parted ways, both sides claiming it was mutual.
Busch began 2012 in a sort of driver's purgatory, wheeling a severely underfunded Chevrolet for a severely undermanned one-car team owned by Florida construction boss James Finch. In 29 races with Phoenix Racing, Busch scored just one top-five finish and two top 10s, although he did score emotional victories in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in both one of Finch's cars and one owned by his brother, Kyle.
When Busch moved to Furniture Row Racing for the final six races of 2012, expectations from observers were low. After all, in the Denver-based team's first 193 races dating back to 2005, they only scored eight top-10 finishes in total. Yet in Busch's six races with Furniture Row at the end of 2012, he finished in the top 10 three times. Although few grasped the significance of it back then, it would be a harbinger of good news to come.
The 2013 season got off to a less than stellar start. Busch failed to crack the top 20 in seven of the first 10 races, including the opening three. After getting caught in a crash in Talladega in May, he left the superspeedway 20th in points.
But behind the scenes, good things were happening on a lot of fronts. Furniture Row had a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. Busch and RCR's Kevin Harvick, once bitter rivals, discovered the value of working together.
“Listening to Kurt Busch in the meetings is something that adds to our team,” Harvick said after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in late May, a race in which Busch finished third. “Not taking anything away from Todd [Berrier, Busch's crew chief] and all the guys working on the car, but the way that Kurt drives – hard – he has good feedback. To me, that's been the thing that really has helped the 78 car become relevant for RCR and myself. You can go over and talk to him and look at his data, and it's real and it's fast. It has really helped what we've been doing.”
There were other occasions where Busch made his presence felt in a big way: In late April, Busch had a successful V8 Supercars test at Austin's Circuit of The Americas, swapping cars with Australian V8 Supercars star James Courtney and quickly getting up to speed. Then, Michael Andretti put Busch in an Andretti Autosport IndyCar (RIGHT) in May and Busch successfully completed his rookie orientation program, hitting 218mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Off the track, Busch was tireless in his work with injured U.S. military personnel. He and girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, auctioned off a custom-built Ford Bronco at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale (Ariz.) Collector-Car Auction in January, raising $500,000 for the foundation. Busch also began to take himself a little less seriously. He ran special paints schemes for the movies “Talladega Nights” and “Days of Thunder,” memorizing lines from the movies and bantering with his crew guys on the radio.
And, most critically, Busch and Furniture Row started becoming the Little Team That Could. In a five-race stretch from Pocono in early June to Daytona on the Fourth of July weekend, they finished seventh or better four times. Suddenly, Kurt was ninth in points.
Still, the road toward the Chase for the Sprint Cup was rocky and Busch's hot streak ended with a 31st-place run in the first New Hampshire race and 14th in the Brickyard 400. But that Brickyard week would prove to be a watershed moment in Busch's career: At a Chevrolet team dinner, Gene Haas, the founder and co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, approached Busch and asked him if he'd like to join Tony Stewart, Harvick and Danica Patrick at Stewart-Haas next year. Haas hadn't even floated the idea by Stewart at the time. Sponsorship, always an issue with any Cup team, was a non-factor. Haas would sponsor the team himself, through his Haas-CNC Automation machine-tool business.
“I bent a few rules, pushed, had some conversations with Kurt,” Haas shrugged. “Everything started to line up. We just needed to figure out how we were going to do this. One of the biggest problems in any race team obviously is sponsorship. With the other three cars having their sponsorship pretty much filled up, it was an opportunity for Haas Automation to be a primary sponsor. In the past, I've always been a co-sponsor on the Stewart‑Haas Racing team. That's a good position to be in. I have no problems with that. This is going to be my shot at being a primary sponsor, going to the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard as the primary sponsor.”
Just days after the initial conversation between Busch and Haas, Stewart suffered a horrific season-ending double compound fracture of his right leg in a sprint car crash at Iowa. Haas pushed ahead and signed Busch, not telling Stewart until it was a done deal.
“I kind of did this on my own, probably overstepped my authority a touch there,” Haas said. “I'm not used to having too many authorities to work with. I've been pretty much on my own. But I did realize that Tony might be a little bit upset about it.”
Exactly one week after Haas and Busch announced the deal at SHR headquarters in Kannapolis, N.C., Stewart showed up at the same spot to dispel rumors that he and Haas were at odds over the signing of Busch.
“Gene is not used to having partners,” said Stewart. “Gene is a self-made success story in the CNC industry, he's pretty much been a one-man show doing it, and this is the first time that he's really had a partner. I think going through that process, I don't think that he thought much about talking to me about it until it got further along.”
While all of this was happening, Busch still had his day job with Furniture Row. On track, he put together another hot streak: In the next six races after the Brickyard, Busch posted four top-five finishes, including second place in the final race of NASCAR's 26-race regular season at Richmond.
Has it been perfect? Of course not. Busch leads the Sprint Cup Series in pit road speeding penalties this year and the team, too, has often struggled on pit road. Still, Furniture Row is light years ahead of where it's ever been in the past. Although Busch went winless, he finished the Sprint Cup regular season 10th in points, meaning Furniture Row became the first single-car team to qualify for the Chase in its 10-year existence.
“I don't know that we had that vision,” said team manager Joe Garone after the Richmond race. “Maybe Kurt did with his experience, but we all filed in right behind Barney [Visser, team owner] and his lead there. Dream comes true today.”
“Well, I don't know that it's a dream come true as much as I'm kind of in awe of Kurt and Joe, the whole team, what these guys have been able to do,” added Visser. “It's been a lot of hard work. They put in a lot of hours. It's much appreciated here.”
So far this season, Busch has nine top-five and 14 top-10 finishes – more than Furniture Row had in its entire history prior to this year. In the first two Chase races, Busch has finished fourth at Chicagoland and 13th at Loudon, leaving him seventh, 40 points behind Matt Kenseth, winner of the first two Chase races. Can Kurt now stun the world and win a second championship, to create one of racing's all-time great underdog stories? Probably not…but he could get close, which would be fun to watch.
So will next year, when SHR becomes a four-car team.
“I know Kurt's résumé as well as anybody,” said his future boss Gene Haas. “I kind of like his attitude. He's passionate about what he does. He likes to win. He's not afraid to get in people's faces. I think that kind of reflects my company a little bit. I think it's a good match. He's a passionate person, and it takes a lot of passion to win these races. The fact that he runs into his friends at 200 miles an hour once in a while, has a few tough words…They all do it, so I don't really have any problems with that, either.”
So what's made the difference in Busch? Why has he grown from someone with a reputation for belligerence and anger to one who's a star again and back in the top echelons of the sport?
Simple: He grew up.
“The opportunity is about people,” Busch said. “That's what makes this so important. What I've neglected in the past is understanding the people, knowing that that makes the difference between going to Victory Lane or not.”
Stewart, meanwhile, makes the point that he, Harvick and Busch – all notorious hot heads at one time or another – have all wised up.
“It's kind of inevitable that at some point all three of us, at different stages, were going to start growing up,” said Smoke. “I don't know that all three of us have completed that process yet, but I think to a certain degree and a certain level, we've each made huge gains in that area.”
But Stewart's hedging his bets, nonetheless.
“There's going to be two really key positions that we're going to have to fill. One is a therapist for me, and the second is a therapist for the rest of the team. But it's going to be fun. Everybody is looking at this as, ‘Oh, my God, this is an atomic bomb that can get set off at any moment,' whereas I look at it the opposite way. We've all been through [conflict] to a certain degree and we don't want to get back in that mode again. So I think whether I get frustrated and those two guys calm me down or it's one of the others who gets frustrated and the two of us calm him down, I think we'll be a good support system for each other.”