For Kurt Busch, the 2015 season is one that will be remembered for two things: controversy to start the season and a successful comeback story that led to a Chase berth and an eighth-place finish in the overall season standings.
Even before the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was underway, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was surrounded by controversy.
Accused of abusing former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll at Dover International Speedway in 2014, Busch faced a host of legal issues as he prepared for the 2015 season. In February, Kent County (Delaware) Commissioner David Jones ruled Busch had "committed an act of abuse," but the former Sprint Cup champion did not face any criminal charges.
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However, NASCAR made it clear domestic abuse situations would not be tolerated. On Feb. 20, Busch was indefinitely suspended from the sport two days before the season-opening Daytona 500.
"Given the serious nature of the findings and conclusions made by the Commissioner of the Family Court of the State of Delaware, NASCAR has indefinitely suspended driver Kurt Busch, effective immediately. He will not be allowed to race nor participate in any NASCAR activities until further notice," NASCAR said in a statement that evening.
"Kurt Busch and his Stewart-Haas Racing team are fully aware of our position and why this decision was made. We will continue to respect the process and timetable of the authorities involved."
Although his appeals process was expedited, NASCAR's decision stood firm and Busch was suspended for the first three weeks of the year. With Busch unable to compete, SHR tapped Regan Smith as the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet for the next three events. The XFINITY Series regular finished 16th, 15th and 16th in his three starts with SHR.
As the off-track saga unfolded, the lack of criminal charges against Busch began to make an impact. On March 11, Busch's indefinite suspension was lifted by the sanctioning body and the 2004 Sprint Cup champion was declared Chase-eligible. In announcing the reinstatement, NASCAR said Busch fulfilled all of the requirements of the reinstatement program and completed the mandatory behavioral assessment sessions.
Yet, NASCAR made it clear Busch had been sent a message about his actions both on and off the track.
"We have made it very clear to Kurt Busch our expectations for him moving forward, which includes participation in a treatment program and full compliance with all judicial requirements as a result of his off-track behavior," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
With the off-track issues in the rearview mirror, Busch and his Tony Gibson-led team focused on making up for lost time. In his first race back behind the wheel of the No. 41 Chevrolet, Busch finished fifth at Phoenix International Raceway. The following week, Busch put the car on the pole and finished third at Auto Club Speedway.
Busch earned his second pole of the season two races later at Texas Motor Speedway, and then finally broke into Victory Lane during the rain-postponed race at Richmond International Raceway. Starting third, Busch led 291 of the 400 laps to earn the victory and secure a likely spot in the 16-driver Chase field.
Earning his second win of the season in a rain-shortened race at Michigan International Speedway in June, Busch's ticket to the Chase was officially punched.
Once he climbed back behind the wheel in March, Busch focused on the task at hand and ran consistently. In his 33 starts in 2015, the elder Busch brother finished outside the top 30 just three times, while he recorded 10 top fives and 21 top 10s.
When the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicked off in Sept., Busch used consistency to advance to the Eliminator Round. After getting caught up in a late-race incident at the front of the field during the closing stages of the Martinsville race, Busch was forced to climb out of a hole at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
Despite back-to-back seventh-place finishes, Busch was unable to make the cut and advance to the Championship 4 that fought for the Sprint Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Ending the season with an eighth-place finish at Homestead, Busch's season ended on a high note, watching his younger brother, Kyle, celebrate his first Sprint Cup championship.
In addition to his on-track success this season, Busch also announced a new multi-year contract extension with SHR and sponsor Monster Energy, as well as getting engaged to model Ashley Van Metre.
For as controversial as the season started for the elder Busch brother, a solid season and top 10 finish in the points was nothing short of a strong accomplishment.