Kurt Busch felt NASCAR’s wrath once again this week – and it wasn’t entirely undeserved.
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Busch was penalized $50,000 and placed on probation until July 25 for “actions detrimental to stock car racing; reckless driving on pit road; involved in an altercation with another competitor after the completion of race” following Saturday night’s Southern 500.
Certainly, Busch’s “actions” during the heat of the battle – on the track or off – will not likely make him a NASCAR poster boy any time soon despite his Sprint Cup championship status. However, while the postrace video of the altercation between the Nos. 39 and 51 on pit road was replayed repeatedly, the footage of Busch “buzzing” Ryan Newman’s crew – which apparently was the catalyst for the entire incident – reviewed on SPEED’s practice coverage on Friday afternoon wasn’t nearly as precarious as the No. 39 team previously portrayed.
After Busch blew a tire in the closing laps of the race, he and Newman entered the pits at the same time. Unfortunately, the pits were side by side and the drivers were in close proximity. Newman left the pits prior to Busch, but his crewmen were still performing maintenance in the pit stall as Busch exited in a race against the pace car in order not to lose a lap.
“We just wanted to finish on the lead lap,” Busch said. “So I was trying to get off pit road as quick as I could. Newman, he left his pit a good 10 seconds before us, and I didn’t think there was any reason to think that any of the crew guys were in danger.
“One guy (Newman’s gasman Andy Rueger) has a problem with it and it just escalated from there.”
Sure, Busch could have given Newman’s crew more space exiting the pits. But after reviewing the tape, the men over the wall didn’t appear to be at risk either.
Busch defended his actions after the race – running into the back of the No. 39 Chevrolet – as “when everyone checked up coming into the garage and he was taking his helmet off.” Busch said he should have learned a valuable lesson from Jimmy Spencer, who delivered a haymaker on the young driver at Michigan in 2003, not to take his helmet off until he was in the garage.
Busch believes the fine is “what it is.” Busch agrees that he didn’t line up properly for the restart after his accident when NASCAR directed him to line up as last car on the track. He assumed the sanctioning body could have taken umbrage for him speeding on pit road or running into the back of the No. 39 on pit road after the race.
Still, Busch found Newman’s vitriol directed at him curious, particularly that Busch’s claim that the postrace contact with the No. 39 after the race “was a lie.”
“Newman and I were friends,” Busch said. “We were great teammates. And he needs to check his trophy case on that Daytona 500 trophy that I helped him get years ago. We were always great friends. There was no need for his comments afterwards. He knew his Southern 500 didn’t go the way he wanted it to and at the end of the night everyone is hot and pissed off.
“The Daytona 500 is a big race, Darlington 500 is just as big of an event and a lot of people get excited for it. I wanted to finish in the top 10 and we didn’t get that top-10 finish. So it was a tough night and it all went bad in a hurry.”
Newman and Busch are competing for something greater than finishing position. Both are free agents at the end of this season. And both drivers will be at the top of most owners’ wish lists if sponsorship can be secured.
Newman, 34, is in his fourth full season with Stewart-Haas Racing, which won the 2011 championship with team owner Tony Stewart last year. In 11 full seasons, Newman has 16 wins, the most recent at Martinsville Speedway in April. He finished in the top 10 six times and is currently 14th in the points standings.
Busch, 33, is in a rebuilding year with Phoenix Racing after parting ways with Penske Racing in December. The 2004 Sprint Cup champion has 24 victories in his 12th year on the tour and has finished 11th or better in the standings eight times.
Given the familiarity of the former Penske Racing teammates – who raced alongside one another from 2006 to 2008 – Newman certainly knows what buttons to push when it comes to Busch. Whether Newman’s intention is to be detrimental to Busch, the driver replied, “This is good for our sport. This is WWE-type of action.”
But ultimately, the opportunity of securing a top ride in Sprint Cup, given the sponsorship climate, will not be an easy task. Busch’s name has been mentioned as a prospect for one of the potential upcoming Dodge teams – Furniture Row, Richard Petty Motorsports or Michael Andretti should he expand his motorsports operation to include NASCAR -- as well as a fourth car at Richard Childress Racing. Both Kurt Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs have dispeled rumors concerning the driver joining brother Kyle at Joe Gibbs Racing. And Busch confirmed that he was never approached by Stewart-Haas Racing for Newman’s current seat in the No. 39 Chevrolet.
“I haven’t talked to Andretti about the NASCAR possibility recently,” Busch said. “But my agent (John Caponigro) represents me as well as Michael Andretti so there is that possibility. So I think things will hit second gear, maybe even third gear once we clear Indianapolis Memorial Day weekend, and we’ll see what clears after the dust settles from everybody’s focus in Indiana and here in Charlotte.
“I’m here, committed with Finch. This is all 2012 and we’re all here to work on this (Phoenix Racing team). There are going to be possibilities that begin to unfold. I’m in the loop just like everyone else is but that door (the 39 ride) hadn’t opened. That wasn’t part of the discussion.”
Busch isn’t concerned that his quick temper will be a liability with his job search.
“For what happened at Darlington, when you get to the meat and potatoes of it, the real people know,” Busch said.
And if Monster Energy’s last-minute decision to come on board the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is any indication of sponsors’ reaction to Busch, then it’s clear that there are certain supporters that will overlook the antics in favor of results. For Busch, it will simply mean attracting the right partner.
“It’s a program to where you just get excited about it not just because of their passion for racing but how much of a fit they are for motorsports,” Busch said. “What they’ve done with the AMA series and moto-cross is unbelievable. To see how they’re involved and how they’re engaged is unbelievable.
“On the NASCAR side, they chose (brother) Kyle and I because they share or passion to be up front, to be winning and to push that edge.”