Few drivers in the history of NASCAR have been more controversial, more polarizing than Kyle Busch.
Unfortunately, there is more to winning at NASCAR’s highest level than sheer speed. Sprint Cup racing is in many ways a mental game, requiring ample doses of composure, focus, restraint and self-control. On those counts, Busch falls far short of the goal. Never has that fact been more apparent than on Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
After early contact with championship contender Ron Hornaday, Jr., Busch lost his cool Friday, intentionally shoving the four-time series champion into the wall at 130-mph, while under caution. Busch toyed with Hornaday like a cat toys with a mouse. Not content to simply end Hornaday’s race, he pushed the No. 33 Chevrolet for hundreds of yards before finally hooking it head-first into the outside wall. It was as if Busch wanted Hornaday to contemplate his fate before sentence was served.
Every driver loses his cool from time to time. There were dozens of examples of that last weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Busch’s outburst Friday was more than a simple loss of emotional control, however. It revealed something darker and more disturbing lurking somewhere deep in Busch’s psyche. That fact was not lost on NASCAR officials, who parked him for the remainder of the weekend.
While Busch drove for himself Friday, NASCAR’s decision to bar him from competition severely impacted the Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series teams. Team owner Joe Gibbs claimed responsibility for the incident Saturday, saying, “It definitely rests with me. When you own something… you’re responsible.” It was a statement many in the industry feel was too long in coming.
Renowned for running a tight ship during his tenure as coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Gibbs has been remarkably lenient in the handling of his NASCAR drivers. Tony Stewart served as NASCAR’s resident bad boy during his time in the JGR stable, repeatedly testing the patience of team members and straining relations with sponsors. Interestingly, Stewart’s behavior improved dramatically when he left the Gibbs camp to become part-owner of his own team, Stewart Haas Racing.
Gibbs admitted Saturday that he has some fence-mending to do with Mars; parent company of M&Ms. Sources say this is far from the first such meeting, and Mars -- a decidedly conservative company with a youth-oriented demographic – reportedly insisted on a clause in Busch’s contract allowing them to terminate their relationship if the driver acts in a manner they consider to be damaging or extreme.
M&Ms has stood behind Busch through numerous bouts of bad publicity in the past. But there is a limit to what they – or any sponsor – can be expected to endure. The company issued a statement today, saying, "The recent actions by Kyle Busch are not consistent with the values of M&M'S and we're very disappointed. Like you, we hold those who represent our brand to a higher standard and we have expressed our concerns directly to Joe Gibbs Racing."
There are winning, championship-caliber drivers with no sponsorship in place for the 2012 Sprint Cup season, and clearly, M&Ms is tied to Busch and JGR for only as long as their tolerance for misbehavior endures.
Now, the good news.
Nearly two years ago, I spoke one-on-one with Busch about the latest in a then series of race day clashes with his Joe Gibbs Racing team. The conversation was unlike any I had ever experienced with the normally guarded driver. He spoke freely, emotionally and from the heart, saying he deeply regretted being a negative influence on his team and the sport. “I know I hurt this team sometimes,” he admitted. “In the heat of battle, my emotions get the better of me, and I say and do things that damage my team and my sponsors. Ten minutes later, I realize what I’ve done and feel terrible about it. I go to the shop on Monday and apologize to everyone, but I realize that saying, `I’m sorry’ is not good enough.
“I know I have to change, and I’m trying really hard to do that.”
In fairness, Busch has shown improvement. His Dec. 31, 2010 marriage to the former Samantha Sarcinella has given the mercurial driver a safe harbor; someone to share his thoughts, fears and troubles with, possibly for the first time in his life. There have admittedly been missteps along the way, but most observers agree that until last week, 2011 had been the calmest, least tumultuous season of Busch’s NASCAR career.
Busch released an “open letter” to sponsors, fans, team members and others Saturday. The letter did not have the polish or feel of a document crafted by the Joe Gibbs Racing Public Relations Department. It spoke in simple, common language, providing another rare glimpse into Busch’s mind, heart and soul.
“I've had a lot of time today to sit and reflect, and try to put my thoughts into words as best I can,” wrote Busch. “I want to sincerely apologize for my actions during Friday night's Truck Series race at Texas. I apologize to my fans, all my sponsors, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports. Even though this took place while driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports, I am sorry for how difficult this has been for everyone associated with Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series teams.”
Busch apologized to Hornaday and his No. 33 team, and said he understands why he was sidelined for the remainder of the weekend. “NASCAR officials had to act,” wrote Busch. “I accept their punishment and take full responsibility for my actions. I feel like I've made a lot of strides this year, but this was certainly a step backward. Moving forward, I will do everything I possibly can to represent everyone involved in a positive manner. However, I know my long-term actions will have more of a bearing than anything I say right now.”
Whether Busch is truly willing to address his emotional and psychological issues remains to be seen. There are resources at his disposal, should he choose to avail himself of them, but no one can make that decision for him. Can Busch dispatch his personal demons in time to salvage relationships with his sponsors, team and fellow competitors? On that count, the jury is still out. Time is almost certainly short, and it will take more than a simple statement of apology – no matter how genuine and heartfelt – to set things straight.
Kyle Busch has reached a crossroads in his NASCAR career. Handled correctly, Friday night’s events at Texas Motor Speedway may one day qualify as the most important of his career.