Daytona 500 Postscript

The 'Outlaw' Kurt Busch
The 'Outlaw' Kurt Busch

Sunday’s Daytona 500 certainly proved to be an interesting start to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. And whether or not NASCAR showered itself in glory during the 59th running of the Great American Race is something we will discuss. But for now, I think an accounting of the man who lifted the Harley J. Earl Trophy Sunday after a bizarre race deserves a few words.

The Outlaw

The career of Kurt Thomas Busch has been an interesting one to say the least. Momentarily ignoring his lengthy and very notable off-track resume, the 38-year-old Las Vegas native has always been deemed something of a supreme talent, yet at the same time I would argue, very overlooked. In contrast to his off-track temperament, Busch has been consistent on track but never really dominant. He has won a NASCAR championship (2004), but never posted more than four wins in a given season. With his current team Stewart/Haas Racing, you perhaps remember Busch wasn’t even wanted by one-half of the nameplate. Following a broken leg near the end of 2013, Tony Stewart was opposed to SHR expanding to four cars, when his very wealth partner Gene Haas pulled rank and hired Busch anyway.

Even now, Busch is something of a forgotten man within SHR as one of his many prior nemeses Kevin Harvick has established himself as the team’s leader on track, while the very marketable Danica Patrick also garners more attention off track. Heck, Busch isn’t even the most famous Busch brother, as his very prolific younger brother Kyle tends to be more highly-regarded.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Of course, part of the reason Kurt Busch is so overlooked could be the fact that in recent years, going overlooked, constitutes something of an achievement.

Following a tough rookie season in 2001 with Roush Racing, Busch had a breakout year in 2002 winning four times, before another four-win season in 2003. A three-win campaign in 2004 earned Busch the Nextel Cup in NASCAR’s first edition of The Chase.

While winning races and championships seemingly came easy, endearing himself to well, anyone, proved quite difficult. While the list of driver run-ins was long, Busch’s rivalry with Jimmy Spencer was most notable. At Michigan in 2003, Spencer reportedly punched Busch in the garage area, breaking his nose.

Of course, disapproval from fellow drivers would turn out to be the least of Busch’s problems. Following a drunk driving arrest prior to the 2005 Phoenix race 2005, Roush Racing had stinging words for the then-reigning series champion. They suspended Busch, who had already signed with Penske Racing for 2006, for the final two races, and made clear they were happy to be moving on. Roush president Geoff Smith said at the time about the drunk driving incident, "it's the last straw for Roush Racing. We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists effective today."

In what can safely be described as a misfit, the Penske/Busch partnership over the next six years was probably a disappointment for both. Busch netted 10 wins, but also four championship finishes outside the top-10. Meanwhile, by 2011 Busch seemed to be unraveling.

At New Hampshire that season, Busch responded to a Jamie Little question on live television saying, “why the fuck do you think I would be okay?". Then during the final race of 2011, an expletive-laden rant to ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch was caught on-camera by a fan. Busch also divorced his first wife Eva Smith in 2011 and parted ways with Penske

Following stints with Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing in 2012 and 2013, something of a career lifeline came in late 2013 when Gene Haas signed Busch for the 2014 season without apparently informing his partner Tony Stewart of the deal.

Sadly, off track drama was not behind Busch.

During 2014, Busch began to be seen with Patricia Driscoll, who was President of the Armed Forces Foundation from 2003-2015. Things seemed to be on the up-and up for Busch who had a very impressive cameo at the Indianapolis 500 that year winning rookie-of-the-year. Driscoll reportedly had begun to help Busch polish his PR act. And the driver even spoke publicly about the relationship he shared with Driscoll’s son Houston. This was a new man it seemed.

Of course, things have never been that easy for Busch. An incident at Dover in the fall of 2014 between Busch and Driscoll resulted in a Delaware family court stating that Busch committed an act of domestic violence against Driscoll. Busch was suspended by NASCAR for the first three races of 2015. The case against Busch was eventually dropped, the two are no longer together and Busch married Ashley van Metre this offseason. Also, Driscoll’s own issues probably softened some of the PR hit Busch incurred from the whole saga. She is now facing charges of stealing money from the Armed Forces Foundation, and strangely Busch testified she was a trained assassin.

And since, Busch has seemed to have it together. Certainly, not a natural in front of the camera, Busch has been noticeably more prepared and polished in media sessions in recent years (notice the always very awkward pulling off of the sunglasses before being interviewed). While the ability to keep things on an even keel will always be a question mark for the 29-time Cup Series winner, no one has ever questioned his talent behind the wheel. Sunday, as many of the top contenders found trouble, Busch drove a calm, heady anti-outlaw style if you will race, that resulted in his first Daytona 500 win.

Yes, it’s been an odyssey for Busch. However, with a new marriage, a new outlook on life, some wind at his back after his biggest win and more than a few years remaining still to realize the full potential of a talent not a single person has ever questioned, one has to wonder: could we be witnessing a the beginning of a run on track for Busch?

Unintended Consequences

Brian France
Brian France

One of the recurring themes of Brian France’s reign as NASCAR chairman & CEO has been the attempt by the sanction to bring more immediacy to the racing. Whether it’s The Chase err….Playoffs, The Race for The Chase, the Green-White-Checker err…Overtime, the recent stage format, or a host of other measures, France has been in constant search of as he would call more “wow moments."

And as I’ve said with respect to the stage format, I get what NASCAR is trying to accomplish. In Sunday’s race, we saw the new stage format in action for the first time. While it’s probably too early to draw a full conclusion, at best, the early reviews would be mixed.

In particular, a lap-104 crash involving Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones, Ty Dillon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. brought out a red flag on lap 107. Now, perhaps there was another reason for the red flag (I have not heard one) but the clear purpose it seemed was to set up a green flag run to the end of the stage.

This practice might be a fine one, except when you consider that the end of each stage brings out another caution (why it needs to be 4 laps, I will never know). And the caution after stage 2 of course bunched the field together raising the chances for another caution (which happened two laps after the restart on lap 126) followed by another accident two laps after the restart for that yellow on lap 134. Got all that?

It should also be noted that this format led to similar delays in the Xfinity Series and Truck Series races.

For the record, NASCAR drivers have spent the past six weeks going out of their way to praise the changes. Also, very predictably, NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell expressed pleasure with the changes yesterday,

You saw two- (and) three-wide all day long. You saw drivers, when a stage came close to ending, pull out and try to win that stage. That's exactly what we wanted. Obviously we never want to see wrecks. But that's part of the sport, that's part of Daytona and that's part of the thrill of winning here if you can make it through."

Daytona SpeedWeeks was an absolute crashfest
Daytona SpeedWeeks was an absolute crashfest

Perhaps, O’Donnell has a point that there was a greater urgency to the racing. I’ll also say the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing Toyotas going ‘off-strategy’ early in the race did add a layer of intrigue, ill-fated as it may have been.

Still, I have to ask: at what cost? Ignoring the extra torn up cars from the bonsai runs the format may encourage, yesterday it produced in a lot of waiting around. And I have to imagine 25-minute red flag sessions on lap 50 work counter to keeping the short attention span audience the measure is attempting to reach, engaged.

For the record: I’m not opposed to the new format per se. I am skeptical to the degree it will encourage interest, and after yesterday I think some hard questions need to be asked going forward.

Other sport analogies

One of the more obnoxious things about any NASCAR telecast – particularly the FOX telecasts – is the constant analogies made between NASCAR and other sports. For example, how often have we heard “the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR"? While I can’t give an exact number, it’s a lot more times than we’ve heard the Super Bowl is the Daytona 500 of football.

Yesterday, in a not so subtle attempt to parallel Super Bowl Sunday, we were told during the telecast that it was “Daytona Day." I don’t know about you, but I had no idea “Daytona Day" was a thing until oh, sometime around 2 p.m. Sunday.

There was also “the cycle," which apparently was a baseballesque reference to a driver winning all three stages.

I guess it’s like a lot of other things in life; for example, the Players Championship calls itself golf’s “fifth major." But if The Players Championship is in fact the “fifth major," why is there the constant need to remind everyone? The reality is such constant self-congratulatory bloviating doesn’t bolster the event’s standing, but merely serves as a constant reminder of what the event is not.

How about this: refer to the Daytona 500 as The Great America Race. That is perfect branding and makes the event sound unique. And please shelve the other sort analogies.

More On TV

I am not a fan of FOX’s coverage for a variety of reasons. For example, Darrell Waltrip’s “Boogity Boogity" is an absolute embarrassment that undermines credibility. But for now I’ll focus on the fact: I’m not overly impressed with the most recent addition to the booth.

Granted, I’m not saying Jeff Gordon is terrible and I know saying anything disparaging about Gordon usually gets one in trouble. That said, I just don’t see the real insight he brings, particularly when you already have another former champion driver already in the booth. I’d argue FOX sacked the best member of the booth when replacing Larry McReynolds with Gordon.

Brian Carroccio is a senior columnist for AutoRacing1. He can be reached at BrianC@Autoracing.com.

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