Penske, Busch turn page after 'dude' outburst
Roger Penske's nickname is "The Captain," which befits a business icon whose diversified financial interests stretch well into billions in annual revenue. After last Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, the auto racing magnate with a record 14 Indianapolis 500 victories might have a new moniker more appropriate for a Coen brothers movie: "The Dude."
|"The Dude" at St. Petersburg Friday|
"We call him that a lot," Jay Penske, Roger's youngest son, said with a laugh while lounging inside his father's motor coach in the paddock Friday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. "Dude man!"
"Yeah, is 'Dude' in," joked Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing.
Sitting in a black leather swivel chair inside the command center of his IndyCar team, Penske, 72, chuckled while watching at flat screen TV displaying Cup practice at Texas Motor Speedway, where Kurt Busch was ranked third.
Penske hadn't been so pleased with the driver of his No. 2 Dodge during Sunday's Goody's 500. In a heated radio exchange that was posted on the Internet this week, Busch lashed out at his car owner during an 18th-place finish at Martinsville.
"That was a stupid adjustment," Busch radioed his crew. "I hope we're proud of ourselves; that was excellent. Our day is about shot now."
"Do your best; we'll be fine," responded Penske, who was watching the race from the spotter's stand at the 0.526-mile oval.
"It's the most frustrating thing in world to think that you think that we're better than what we are," Busch shot back.
"If you didn't blow yourself up we'd be a lot better," radioed Penske, a rare trace of anger rising in his voice. "You made a change, it didn't work. All we hear is bunch of stuff on the radio. Let's get serious here. OK? You understand?"
"Oh, 10-4, dude. 10-4."
Was it the first time Penske, whose business acumen and buttoned-up style set new standards for professionalism at Indianapolis Motor Speedway decades ago, had been called 'dude'?
"I've been called a lot of things on the radio," Penske said, laughing. "You've been in this sport as long as you have, you hear a lot of things. I'm absolutely cool with it. I just didn't like to see him that way. I'm the car owner, I've been around. For his reputation and the way he's built himself with us and the success he's had.
"I kept telling him there's 42 other guys behind you in points. You were 16th last year this time. Let's take the high road."
Penske said he met with Busch on Tuesday and Thursday, and that they had "moved on" with a Busch-designed solution.
"The one thing good was Kurt said, 'Let's come up with words to bring this whole thing together (the next time) when we're in the position of not performing,' " Penske said. "He came up with 'big picture.' (So the next time), we're getting stressed, (crew chief) Pat Tryson can say, 'Remember the big picture.' "
Sunday's radio tirade was the latest of many by the 2004 champion, who was similarly sharp-tongued toward previous car owner Jack Roush when his car wasn't handling well.
A move to Penske in 2006 was cast as an opportunity for Busch, 30, to mature. While he's become more accommodating and comfortable with the media, his race-day outbursts have continued — particularly during a dismal 2008 season when he finished 18th in points and posted only five top fives and 10 top-10s, the lowest totals since his 2001 rookie campaign.
In a 39th at Auto Club Speedway of Southern California last August, Busch grew so angry after a spin, he radioed "we have no idea what we're doing at Penske Racing. .. I don't even know how to drive anymore, thanks for that.. .. Tell me when my contract is over."
During a 36th last October at Martinsville, Busch's Dodge handled so poorly, he asked the crew to park the car. When told he couldn't, he responded "if I get hurt, thanks. Appreciate it."
Penske believes Sunday's meltdown was tied to Busch's strong start this season — he dominated in a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway and was ranked second in points entering Martinsville, a track that isn't among his favorites despite having won there in 2002.
"It was a situation where Kurt was highly charged, having had success," Penske said. "Then he got in an accident at Bristol, and it cost him a top 10. He started out decent at Martinsville and couldn't keep up in practice. Kurt was just having one of those days. As we went into Bristol and Martinsville, he had such success at Atlanta, he'd almost in his mind concocted that those two races were going to be tough. Then the performance wasn't what he wanted. He's a driver that wants to lead every lap.
"His expectation is to be out front, and it manifested itself in the discussion. We talked about it and moved on. He'll be fine, and we'll put it behind us."
On Friday at Texas, a 1.5-mile track akin to Atlanta where he has shined this year, Busch said he and Penske were "on the same page."
"I have the utmost respect for him," Busch said. "When we're in the heat of the battle, sometimes things are said that aren't really the right thing to say, but we do need to work on our short-track program if we want to be a contender once we get down the stretch run. That's all I was trying to imply."
All Penske was trying to do was "to take the pressure off him and say, 'We'll be fine.' " Penske often watches NASCAR races from atop the track, where he perches not as a spotter but in the vein of an NFL assistant coach watching from a skybox.
"I've had discussions before with drivers that when I'm in the spotter's stand watching the lines they run and what others do, I might see more things than you think," he said.
Many of Busch's peers were taken aback at seeing Penske being slammed. On Friday at Texas, the outburst drew a mixture of bemusement and bewilderment from Cup veterans. More at USA Today