Times are tough throughout the racing world. Sponsorship can’t be found, teams are being forced to cutback and many a talented driver and crew member have found themselves jobless as a result.
The latest causality is Kurt Busch who was fired Monday from his high-profile ride as the driver of No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger for Penske Racing.
Except Busch’s release had nothing to do with the slumping economy.
Instead, it had everything to do with his continued boorish behavior which often resembled that of a child whose favorite toy was being taken away because he didn’t know how to share.
The latest example of his behavior came in the last race of the year at Homestead when Busch melted down to a member of the media. In the video which was captured by a fan, Busch is seen berating longtime ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch. A barrage which included numerous expletives and a complete lack of respect for the much-admired broadcaster.
This tirade was the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae in a season in which Busch repeatedly bullied the media, including challenging one reporter to a fight, and in another instance ripping up a piece of paper presented by another and then scattering it across her workstation.
Not to mention on numerous occasions Busch has verbally abused his crew chief and other members of his team including car owner Roger Penske over the radio.
His actions became a continued public black eye for Busch’s sponsor, Shell/Pennzoil. To the point, the company all but had no choice to ask for his removal after this latest public transgression was videotaped for the world to see.
In a flooded market with many a talented a driver available, albeit none as talented as Busch, Roger Penske was put in a position where he had to make a decision.
Does he continue to standby a driver who has won 24 races in his career and has a Sprint Cup title to his name? Or, with his sponsor threatening to withdrawal their support and no other company willing to fill the void, does he cut bait and find someone else to drive one of his Dodge’s?
To Penske, the choice was a no-brainer.
Which is why today, Kurt Busch now finds himself out of a ride and staring at a future which can best be described as bleak.
In NASCAR there are six what I call superteams. In no particular order they are, Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and the team Busch has driven for the last six years, Penske Racing.
These six organizations are the big money teams with high-buck sponsors, a vast amount of resources and continually field cars which compete for the championship on a yearly basis.
Landing a spot with one of these teams is no easy proposition. And without one of these coveted rides, a driver’s chance to win races and contend for the championship is diminished greatly. Since 1993 only one championship has been won by a driver not aligned with one of these organizations (Dale Jarrett in 1999 with Robert Yates Racing).
However, for a variety of reasons, both in and out of his control, Busch is now on the outside looking in and facing the very real prospect of having to drive for a team that won’t be able to give him the equipment which matches his immense talent.
First and foremost on that list is Busch’s old car owner, Jack Roush.
To say Busch burned the bridge with Roush would be an understatement. The more apt description would be scorched and reduced to a pile of ashes.
In 2005, one year removed from winning he and Roush’s first title, Busch made it crystal clear to his boss that he felt he was underpaid and thusly would be leaving the team at the end of the year. Roush, who had grown tired of his driver’s petulance, had no qualms about seeing Busch go elsewhere.
But the last straw came with two races left in the ‘05 season, when Busch had a run-in with police who cited him for reckless driving. Roush responded by parking his departing driver for the final two races of the year.
Without divine intervention, there is little chance Busch will ever sit in a racecar bearing Jack Roush’s name.
While Kurt has never driven for Rick Hendrick, his younger brother Kyle has. And after that experience, which can nicely be described as turbulent, the man who has won 10 Sprint Cups as a car owner has no inclination to resume his relationship with the Busch Brothers.
Not to mention, Hendrick is at the NASCAR-imposed four-team limit and has long-term contracts in place with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
The same dilemma of having a brother with a lengthy rap sheet is why Joe Gibbs Racing is also not an option for Kurt.
The team has a hard enough time keeping one Busch in check, trying to supervise two would borderline on impossible.
Over at Stewart-Haas, the organization has its hands full. Not only do they have to put the pieces in place for a third car featuring Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart also needs to find a competition director to lead his blossoming team. Adding a fourth car on top of all this is simply not in the cards.
Although Richard Childress is below the four-team limit and has room to expand, it’s not going to happen. At least not to make room for Busch.
If the money could be found, the fourth car in all likelihood would be earmarked for Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, who just became the youngest champion in Truck Series history and will drive fulltime next season in the Nationwide Series.
It’s also hard to image Busch and Kevin Harvick being under one roof together. Having these two Type-A personalities on the same team would surely cause some sort of cosmic explosion.
And why, with Childress’ long and notorious history with Kyle Busch, would he want to bring in the older brother who’s just as much of a troublemaker as his younger sibling?
Busch’s best bet, if he wants to continue in NASCAR and get back in the good graces of a car owner that would be able to better help him win his second championship, is signing on with a underfunded backmarker. Be it Front Row Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing or a team of that ilk.
A team which might be lacking in stature and resources, but has a seat available and more importantly, is more willing to put up with Busch’s sometimes, shall we say, quirky personality.
If he does that, rehabs his persona both publically and privately, the odds of him eventually landing with a bigger team go up considerably.
Otherwise, at the age of 33 and in the prime of his career, Kurt Busch’s days of being relevant are effectively over.
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media/Getty Images