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.