In a stunning move just two days before the season-opening Daytona 500, NASCAR suspended Kurt Busch indefinitely on Friday after a judge said the former champion almost surely strangled and beat an ex-girlfriend last fall and there was a "substantial likelihood" of more domestic violence from him in the future.
NASCAR said Busch would not be allowed to race or participate in any NASCAR activities until further notice given the "serious nature of the findings and conclusions" made by the Delaware judge.
"Kurt Busch and his Stewart-Haas Racing team are fully aware of our position and why this decision was made," the series said in a statement. "We will continue to respect the process and timetable of the authorities involved."
In a 25-page opinion explaining why he issued the no-contact order this week, Family Court Commissioner David Jones concluded that it was more likely than not that Busch abused Patricia Driscoll by "manually strangling" her and smashing her head into a wall inside his motorhome at Dover International Speedway last September.
Busch has denied the alleged assault, which is the subject of a separate criminal investigation, but the judge said Driscoll's version of the incident was more credible than Busch's.
After the suspension was announced, Driscoll said "no one is above the law." She urged NASCAR to develop a confidential reporting mechanism that partners of drivers could use to report domestic abuse without fear of threats or reprisals for coming forward
"I'm very encouraged that NASCAR is taking steps to recognize that domestic violence is a serious issue, and I hope that we see them develop a very clear policy on it," Driscoll said. "God forbid this happens in the future."
Busch becomes the first driver suspended by NASCAR for domestic violence; NASCAR Chairman Brian France has maintained the series would let the process play out before ruling on Busch's eligibility -- and the series came down hard in finding that he committed actions detrimental to stock car racing and broke the series' behavioral rules.
It is Busch's third career suspension. He was suspended in 2012 by NASCAR for threatening a reporter, and parked for the final two races of the 2005 season by Roush-Fenway Racing after he was pulled over by police in Arizona.
He now races for SHR, which has not said who will replace Busch in Sunday's race.
Jones noted that Driscoll presented false testimony that conflicted with that of a chaplain who saw her immediately after the alleged assault and said he didn't see any marks or bruises on her. Jones nevertheless said he didn't believe Driscoll's false testimony amounted to perjury or intentional falsehood.
The judge concluded that Busch did not appear to be a prototypical batterer who uses violence to subjugate or control, but that the incident instead was most likely a "situational" event in which Busch was unable to cope and to control his tendency to act out violently in response to stress and frustration, causing him to "snap."
At the same time, however, Jones said he believes there's real possibility that Busch will lash out again.
"Given respondent's passion for his racing career and his intemperate and frequently violent reactions to seemingly minor racing setbacks, the court finds that there exists a likelihood of future acts of domestic violence against petitioner in the event that respondent's racing career is damaged or destroyed as the result of his having been found to have committed an act of domestic violence in this case or any subsequent criminal prosecution," Jones wrote.
Jones added that because Busch has a propensity to lose control in response to disappointing or frustrating situations involving racing and that those who love him are likely to be around him at those times "there is a substantial likelihood of acts of domestic violence by respondent against future intimate partners.
Busch's attorneys filed a motion late Thursday asking Jones to re-open the Family Court hearing so that they can present testimony from three acquaintances of Driscoll who they say were previously reluctant to get involved but have now come forward to contradict statements Driscoll has made about her relationship with Busch.