Reaction to Busch's firing unanimous Penske Racing officially confirmed Monday a mutual parting of ways with driver Kurt Busch. Busch’s departure follows an obscenity-laden rant directed toward ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as well as other well-publicized incidents and controversies in 2011.
Below, SPEED on-air personalities react to the news of Busch’s departure, including its potential impact on his future career.
Roger Penske runs a pretty squeaky clean operation and these types of actions aren’t part of it. I truly believe this went way beyond the Jerry Punch incident and flipping someone off in the car. This was a culmination of events from the last three years. It has put Roger in a bad situation. It’s Dec. 5 and all the top-tier drivers who may have been on the fence earlier now are re-signed.
“Every driver and owner team operates differently. I’ve said for many years that we have a lot of incidences in these combinations of the tail wagging the dog. A lot of drivers think that because they have contracts and win races that they can call the shots. Some drivers’ character and attitudes are terrible. This makes a statement to each one of them.
“There are very few sponsors out there today. Kurt’s future isn’t necessarily about what owner will have him – it’s more about what sponsor will. Although we know Jack Roush and Roger Penske won’t have him, there are a lot of owners that probably would create a seat for Kurt Busch because he will win races. What is so terrible about this deal is that he is a great ambassador and great spokesperson for his sponsor and team outside that race car. That’s why this is so tragic. I talked to him Friday night before the banquet in Las Vegas and you will not meet a nicer guy. But when he buckles that chinstrap, he can’t control his feelings or emotions.
“My heart bleeds for Kurt because I know what a good person he truly is. I had an anger problem a few years back, but I finally went and worked with some sports psychologists and got it under control. I’d cuss someone out in the drive-thru window for putting pickles on my sandwich when I asked for no pickles. In between my crew chief and TV careers, I went to the sports psychologist. Richard Childress tried to talk me into getting some help several times and even offered to pay for it, but I always declined. I should have gone sooner than I did. My fuse was short. I wasn’t violent but I had no patience with anything or anybody. I just couldn’t control my temper and would go off. I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
--Larry McReynolds, FOX Sports and SPEED analyst and former crew chief
“Kurt is a hell of a driver and a past champion but he thinks he’s above everyone and everything. You can’t treat people the way has – I don’t care who they are. Kurt has disgraced NASCAR and his sponsors. He obviously needs to get some help managing his anger and hopefully he will. If he does, maybe he can survive being let go from Penske, but it will be hard for another top-notch team to pick him up without him demonstrating a complete overhaul and true remorse. My gut feeling, though, is that he can’t truly come back from this. He won races this year, made the Chase and is a former champion, and yet he still was let go. That does not bode well for his future.
“Ironically, I think people are overlooking the Pennzoil situation. Pennzoil left Richard Childress Racing and Kevin Harvick for a lot less offensive behavior from Harvick due to Harvick’s bickering with his crew over the radio and fighting with Richard Childress over his contract.
“In my opinion, Roger Penske is the most honorable man in motorsports and he has the utmost respect of everyone in NASCAR and IndyCar. But Busch has treated him with the most disrespect I’ve ever seen a driver treat an owner. Kurt has blown up and shown his rear end to the point that I think Roger’s hands were tied and he had to fire him not just for the sponsor but for the morale and betterment of the organization.
--Jimmy Spencer, SPEED analyst and former driver
“Among the Wind Tunnel staff, the question has circulated for quite some time: ‘Kurt Busch's behavior is so un-Penske-like, how long will Roger continue to put up with it?’ The underlying assumptions were: (1) His performance made it worth putting up with his attitude and (2) Roger continued to hold out hope that he could eventually get his driver to behave in a more Penske-like manner. Apparently ‘The Captain’ finally ran out of patience. It will be very interesting to see what owner is willing to give Kurt another chance.”
--Dave Despain, host of Wind Tunnel
“This is a business. When a driver’s behavior and actions bleed over to the business side, then it becomes everybody’s business. With some of the things that went on with Kurt this year with his in-car tirades, and I’ve defended him on every single tirade inside the race car, with the way he’s been portrayed in the media and now his outburst toward Jerry Punch, I don’t think the sponsors can live with that. Roger probably could live with it more easily than the sponsors. His firing shouldn’t catch anybody off guard because so many people have pushed those boundaries and now someone needs to pay for it. Kurt is the one paying for it. I applaud Roger Penske and the Penske organization for standing up for the integrity of Penske Racing and what it stands for. Because I’ve said it before – Joe Gibbs hasn’t done anything to Kyle Busch as far as anyone publicly knows. Sometimes the car owner has to step up and make a call when NASCAR won’t, and it appears Roger has done that.
“I think the message this sends is that just because you win races, you can’t be a horse’s rear-end. Winning doesn’t cure all ills because Kurt won races this year, is a past champion and was a Chase contender. We’re not talking about someone at the back of the pack. Winning is good but you not only have to win, but you have to be a winning driver off the track, as well, and conduct yourself in a manner appropriate for your sponsors and the people you represent. This sends a huge message to young and up-and-coming drivers that just because you’re cocky and arrogant and think you’re the greatest, you still have to fit into the boundaries and the mold, and I guess Kurt stepped outside those.
“The impact on his career could be huge but what makes it even bigger is that today is December 5 and all the rides for next year appear to be taken unless someone shuffles drivers around. If Kurt has to sit out a year waiting on a ride, then we’ll know how truly impactful this is. From some of the statements made by the sponsors, what sponsor will want to take a chance on him again? Although the sponsorship pool is small nowadays, the sponsors that are out there want to maximize their dollars. One of the underlying reasons Kurt was let go is that he didn’t represent his sponsor in a good light, and if I was a sponsor, I might not look at Kurt the same way I’d look at another potential driver. That could have a huge impact on his future.”
--Kyle Petty, SPEED analyst and former driver
“I have mixed feelings about Kurt Busch's release from Penske. He admits he's been over-emotional in the race car. He is a fierce competitor and a tremendous talent. On the other hand, his comments on team radio are sarcastic and extremely demeaning. I think this is a reality check for Kurt that words do have meaning, even in the heat of the moment.
“I'm sure this was a difficult decision for Roger Penske. However, Roger has very high standards and I'm not surprised he took this bold step. His decision also points to how important image is to his corporate partners. He's been very patient and tolerant of Kurt's behavior. I also wouldn't be surprised if Roger made this decision independent of a sponsor's wishes. I do hope Kurt retains his competitive fire, but in a more constructive way. It's easy to pass judgment, but he is human. I hope he turns this into a positive.”
--Steve Byrnes, host of NASCAR Race Hub
“So much of what happens in NASCAR these days is dictated by the multi-million-dollar sponsorships that fuel race teams. It's not enough to have great driving skill, which Kurt Busch clearly has in abundance. You also need to be a great brand ambassador for your sponsors. Busch's repeated public gaffes made him a liability, not an asset for Penske Racing and Shell/Pennzoil.”
--Tom Jensen, Editor-in-Chief of SPEED.com
“The sad part of all this is Kurt saw how much flack his brother (Kyle Busch) caught and how much a sponsor influenced his career over the last couple of 2011 Nationwide Series races, and Kurt still didn’t get the message. He totally disrespected the sport, and in particular Dr. Jerry Punch. This is about sponsors and fans, and when you’ve hurt their image or disrespected them, then you’ve put yourself in harm’s way. I think that’s exactly what happened with Kurt. He didn’t learn from his brother’s mistakes and made the same type of mistake, giving Roger very little choice, based on what I’ve heard about how upset the folks at Pennzoil were, as well as Roger.
“Look at Kurt’s career. He started off with Jack Roush, won a championship and then got a little uppity, a little needy and maybe a little disrespectful and forgetful of where he came from. He then went to Penske as a result. So, he’s driven for two great race teams. But where does he go now? There aren’t many good teams out there with open seats. The effect on his career could be very devastating, and it could take a long time to get back in a qualified ride and back on track. I think he’s going to be in a world of hurt. Kurt just thought he had problems at Penske but wait until he has to drive for a lesser team that probably has less resources and less-talented mechanics.
“You’re fighting an uphill battle to prove that you can change. We see in other sports how difficult that can be. I hate it for him. The Busch brothers are two of the most talented drivers to come into the sport in recent years, and I’m hoping the two of them can be role models for what not to do and how to fix it.”
--Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst and former crew chief