DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It didn't take long — one practice session, in fact — to see how different life is this season for Kurt Busch.
His new car was wrecked in the first practice session of the season Friday, and the backup Phoenix Racing had on hand at Daytona International Speedway was missing its seat.
Not exactly putting the fun back into racing, eh?
Busch took a calm approach to Friday's accident, which began when defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart turned him as he pushed Busch's car at Daytona International Speedway. It wrecked a really good race car — Busch had the fastest 10-lap average over the practice session — and guaranteed a long day of work for Phoenix Racing to get him ready for Saturday night's exhibition Budweiser Shootout.
"Just all the hard work, and the limited cars we have, we don't need to have wrecked cars," said Busch, who after thanking sponsor Tag Heuer, smiled. "We'll be all right."
Busch is working hard this season to repair his reputation and learn to enjoy life a little more. He struggled with that the last few years at Penske Racing, where his intense focus and constant desire to win often blinded him from the big picture. An ill-handling race car often sent him into an obscenity-laced rant, and incidents with rival Jimmie Johnson left him seeing red.
His temper got the best of him time and time again, and the final straw came in the season finale at Homestead, where he lashed out at an ESPN reporter in an incident captured by a fan and posted on YouTube. Busch and Penske Racing mutually agreed to split two weeks later, and Busch said at the time it was obvious he was unhappy and he desperately needed to "put the fun back in racing."
That's what he's trying to do now with James Finch's underfunded race team.
He landed at Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 Chevrolet, and spends many a day in the Spartanburg, S.C., race shop. He said the team has 18 employees, but every time he counts, he only comes up with 16.
The team doesn't have a sponsor for the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500, and with a season-long need to find funding, Busch is determined to prove he's still a tremendous value. In doing so, though, he's reluctant to claim he's a changed man or he's got a clean slate ahead of him.
"There's no fresh start here. There's no new image. There's no revamping," he said. "Time will take care of that, and I hope by October people will realize that when I said I'm going to put the fun back in racing, that they can see that I've done that. It just doesn't happen overnight."
But Busch is different.
Although he still tries to stay on message in interviews, he doesn't seem to be as guarded. He smiles and makes self-deprecating jokes, and willingly admits he's made many mistakes.
He's still careful with his words, though, nervous that something he says out of honesty will be misconstrued or perceived as him being arrogant, or, even worse, a jerk.
Busch can't help that, he cares too much about what people say, and learning to tune out the criticism is one of the biggest tasks of his self-improvement project. He's been working with a psychologist since late last season, and believes his weekly sessions have been helpful.
"There's projects that he gives me each and every week, and one of them was that when you see a unique article written, take it throw it in the fire and write 10 positive things that you want out of it next time," said Busch, and "I'm like 'Sweet! I get to burn something!' So I'm destroying something, burning something, and I get to write 10 positive things.
"I'm twisting it into a way that I can digest it."
He knows he's got a long way to go in the court of public opinion, and overcoming his negative image isn't easy. A recent survey by Forbes found Busch to be the 10th most disliked athlete in professional sports, and the most disliked race car driver.
Busch took it in stride, joking he had been ranked third in a previous Forbes poll so his current spot is an obvious improvement. But that YouTube video from November didn't help anything, and he pays for it during the mundane activities of daily life.
"Nearly a million people viewed it and 99 percent of the people say "wow, he is a raging lunatic,' " Busch said. "It's those one big moments that kill everything. When you go to the grocery store, somebody is looking at you and they know that it's you and they don't think they can approach you because they think you are (a jerk).
"And then they come up to you and find out they can get an autograph, they can get a picture and suddenly it's 'Oh, wow, you're really not such a bad guy after all.' It's tough sometimes because I've got to break through that ice with people. They don't know me, they just know what they've read about me."
Busch has loyal defenders in the industry, including former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
"Kurt has always been one of the best teammates I've ever had," Kenseth said. "Kurt is a good guy. He really is one of those guys that honestly would do about anything for you. If you call him and need something, he'll do just about anything for you."
He's made it so hard on himself that his temper gets more attention than his 2004 NASCAR championship and 24 career victories. But he's widely regarded as one of the most talented drivers in the garage, and Kenseth believes it helped him overcome his many blowups.
"If he wasn't such a tremendous driver, he would probably have had problems sooner with some of the things he says in the heat of the moment," Kenseth said. "If he was a mid-level driver and you are an owner and can replace him with someone who is real easy to work with, I think that probably would have been done. But I don't think there's many people out there with his talent."
Now Busch will get to show that every single week driving for Finch, who earned his only Sprint Cup Series victory with Brad Keselowski driving for him at Talladega in 2009. Although the team gets some help from Hendrick Motorsports, it can't equally compete weekly with the heavyweights in the garage.
Busch insists he'll take what he can get.
"I am serious about finding results, but I am also serious that it's not going to take winning to make me happy," he said. "There's better ways to be happy in life than worrying about getting the checkered flag every week."