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NASCAR’s Career-Death Experience: A Road To (Almost) Recovery

NASCAR’s Career-Death Experience: A Road To (Almost) Recovery

In the wake of Kurt Busch’s Martinsville victory, filled with more irony than Alanis Morissette could ever sing about, it’s important to remember his comeback, nearly 80 races in the making is nothing short of miraculous in modern NASCAR. For in a world where rides, let alone sponsors were growing extinct back in December 2011 this point cannot be emphasized enough: Kurt Busch was left for dead.

I bring this YouTube clip back, not to disparage Busch but to remind us how far he’s come. That punch to the face (emotionally) to ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch cost him a job with one of the most respected men in racing, Roger Penske. Kicked out of a top-tier ride for the second time in a championship career, Busch’s two strikes had become so egregious they looked like three. A long line of verbal abuse, terrorizing crewmen, and others around him had superseded talent to the point Penske was left with no choice. The public backlash was so intense he snagged a replacement with one-tenth the Cup accomplishments in AJ Allmendinger simply to preserve the basics of team self-respect.

Brad Keselowski, back then was simply a Penske teammate, an up-and-coming talent who had taken over the No. 2 ride Busch drove the year prior. After a year in the No. 22, where Busch’s abuse included calling engineers “monkeys,” nearly fighting a reporter and then the Punch incident, Keselowski still broke through to form a bond.

“Kurt has been a great teammate and friend to me over the last 2 seasons,” Keselowski said then, after Busch’s release. “I truly do wish him the best, wherever and whatever he does.”

Fast forward to Sunday, where “best wishes” took on a whole new meaning. The duo, inside a crowded Martinsville pit road made contact, an incident that broke Keselowski’s front suspension – and 2014 momentum. Busch was able to continue on, racing mid-pack still on the lead lap as Keselowski took the lead with his own type of verbal tongue-lashing. Frienemies would be an optimistic term for a relationship that’s clearly soured the past few seasons.

“Kurt drove right through us, absolutely drove through us,” Keselowski said of the incident. “I’m about tired of his recklessness.”

Fomer teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch clashed on Sunday in Martinsville.

So Kes, on-track retaliated by trying to wreck him. For several laps, a hoodless No. 2 was like a magnet for Kurt Busch’s right side. If not scraping sheet metal, trying to flatten a tire he would charge in front only to slow down, impeding the progress of the No. 41 and other cars. Busch’s anger, justified in this case, got the best of him as he screamed on the radio, “Welp, guess we get to get in a fight afterwards because I’m going to **** that dude’s ****ing face!”

Which is where we switch back to 2011. It’s the type of incident, back then that would haunt Busch the rest of the race, making him lose focus and lose temper on the one group that didn’t deserve it: his crew. In truth, if Keselowski succeeded in causing further mayhem, permanently ruining the No. 41 car’s day, who knows what would have happened.

“If we would’ve got a flat tire at that moment,” Busch said. “We would have gone a couple laps down because it was a green-flag condition, and there would have been hell to pay.”

But Busch didn’t, just like the Penske ride didn’t kill him off like most thought. James Finch, knowing Busch was a former champion sought him out in 2012 to drive for a vastly underfunded and underequipped Phoenix Racing. The rebuild for Busch was rough, often painful as it was driving that No. 41 car early on at Martinsville with all that damage. He earned a one-race suspension that year for verbally assaulting a full-time reporter, frequently trashed his equipment, and earned a love-hate relationship with the hardworking, undermanned crew. Yet through it all, he did enough, nearly winning a few races and catching the eye of the next step back on the ladder: single-car Furniture Row.

That break, in 2013 into NASCAR’s middle class was the rebound Busch needed to match the talent. “I didn’t respect my team, my team owners, I needed to communicate better,” he said. “It was a challenge to work with those Furniture Row guys. I thought we were knocking on the door about the 10th race in last year, and we couldn’t win. It’s amazing how many things have to fall into place — I never doubted myself. I never gave up.”

Neither did FRR, where their remote location out in Colorado, along with the support of car owner Barney Visser, helped shield Busch from constant media scrutiny, giving him a chance to fully heal. A relationship with Patricia Driscoll, one that includes a loving relationship with her nine-year-old son, Houston, also helped mellow Busch out. Making the Chase, FRR ran 10th in points, setting records for the one-car organization while rolling out the red carpet for Stewart-Haas to come calling. That season, more than ever, taught both sides the ability to work as an underdog, to make the most out of the opportunity you’re given. Busch, while still prone to the occasional meltdown also had days where he pushed, correctly in a way that made the team around him better.

It’s those days that got Busch to focus, now, with an organization that six races in rallied around him. Slowly, with each pit stop, the No. 41 got its handling better, the sheet metal banged out under the directions of rookie crew chief Daniel Knost. Knost, while still a relative unknown, has developed a knack for cheerleading Busch on, even swearing with joy on the radio when Busch claimed “he was going for the lead” late in the race. It’s a “teamwork” mentality, part of the philosophy of Hendrick Motorsports that mixes with the hard-nosed, driver/owner Tony Stewart and the way in which SHR gets run.

“I can communicate things to mid-level personnel… there’s a full channel of everybody, racers like Greg Zipadelli there to help you,” Busch said. “Matt Borland was there to assist Daniel in our growth, and a whole group of guys back at that shop that are hopefully not going to tear the lobby down when we party, it’s that camaraderie and it’s that feeling.”

Which led to Busch’s fantastic finish. Focused, the last 50 laps he didn’t care about Keselowski, his verbal outbursts, or even a former rivalry with a driver, Jimmie Johnson, who also doubled as “the man” at Martinsville. There was only a simple, consistent drive to form a rhythm and work his way around the No. 48. By all accounts, Johnson had a car that all day seemed to be toying with the opposition. The final run was an amazing display of Busch’s racing brilliance, a showcase of talent that still exists as he took a six-time champion, hungry for a win in race six and methodically reeled him in on the track he owns.

“To beat Jimmie Johnson and to pass for the win and have him pass me and then I got back by him, it was a great short-track duel,” he said. “It was as if I hadn’t missed a beat.”

The response was muted, from both sides after Johnson would have been incensed to lose to Busch years earlier – especially after leading a race-high 296 laps. Instead, the pseudo-teammate, in 2014 admitted the passage of time, combined with Busch’s budding maturity does seem to heal all wounds.

“Through some of the struggles he’s had the last couple years before he landed at Stewart-Haas, I’ve been there and had conversations with him, gave him my opinion,” Johnson said. “I was happy to see him go to Stewart-Haas. He’s a fantastic driver, and with the way we share information, we can learn from him and learn from that.”

But perhaps the real moment of change came in Victory Lane, Keselowski shouting not too far away on the half-mile track that if Busch wanted to come down and fight, he’d be ready. The whole point of the verbal slew was to ruffle feathers and get Busch all riled up, which eventually worked by the second set of media interviews: “That’s a punk-ass move,” Busch said, “And he will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.” But most of the millions of NASCAR fans never got a chance to see or hear that. On Fox television, when pressed, Busch took the high road in Victory Lane, stepping away from confrontation and instead focusing on the positives at hand.

Kurt Busch, the calmer head at Martinsville. Really?

“As far as Kurt Busch handling it, I think he did a great job and we have obviously found a solution for Kurt Busch,” joked car owner Gene Haas. “When he is in the Winner’s Circle, he doesn’t bitch about anything, so that is where we need to keep him.”

“You’ve got to put life in perspective,” Busch added later. “You have to learn from your mistakes, and you can’t just sit there and try to muscle your way individually through certain situations. So you rely on your experience level, you rely on your team.”

And now, Kurt Busch can almost certainly rely on a spot in the Chase, something Johnson, among many others can’t say this early in the year. Many still detest that reality, in a world where too few admittedly get second chances that deserve it. It’s a criticism I understand, despite believing we should be focused on the positives, supporting those who choose to make themselves better.

Like it or not for Busch, NASCAR’s polarizing force the story is now complete: he has pulled off the unthinkable, maturing amidst the madness and pulling off one of the more impressive comebacks in NASCAR history. A man who was left for dead, who so many wished would simply go away has fully emerged from trauma alive and kicking. There’s something to be said about that, no matter how badly this Monday Mr. Keselowski wants to take Mr. Busch, square him up and punch NASCAR’s newest victor dead in the face.

ATHLON SPORTSBOWLES: Through The Gears Post-Martinsville

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Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.