What a difference two years makes.
Just 24 months ago, Kurt Busch was an unwilling spectator at the 2015 Daytona 500, suspended by NASCAR for the first two races of the season while charges of domestic abuse leveled by former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll were investigated.
Yesterday, Busch stood in Victory Lane at the World Center of Racing, celebrating a win in stock car racing’s greatest event, along with a personal resurrection that seemed all-but-impossible not so long ago.
In 2015, Busch was NASCAR’s resident bad actor, a troubled soul whose repeated clashes with fans, media and even his own teammates often overshadowed his unquestionable talent behind the wheel. Today, the Las Vegas native bears little resemblance to his former self; newly married to a woman he calls “the love of my life” and seemingly content at last with both his job and his life off the race track.
|Haas (L) and Gibson played major roles.|
There are plenty of people to thank for that transformation.
Team owner Gene Haas scooped Busch off NASCAR’s scrap heap in 2014, after watching the former series champion lift Furniture Row Racing to the ranks of contenders the prior season. Haas hired Busch without consulting partner Tony Stewart, who was convalescing from a badly broken leg suffered in a Sprint Car crash.
“I wanted to go forward with (Busch),” said Haas at the time. “I did this on my own (and) probably overstepped my authority a tick. I realized that Tony might be a little bit upset about it, and he was.”
The move caused a rift within the organization that took some time to heal. But on the race track, it paid almost immediate dividends. After a middling 2014 campaign with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost – 11th in points with a win and six Top-10 finishes in 36 starts – Busch was paired with veteran Tony Gibson for the 2015 campaign.
Gibson’s ready smile and easygoing manner mask a no-nonsense attitude that is exactly what the mercurial Busch needed. “Old Man” laid down the law early in his tenure, putting a stop to the on-track tirades that had poisoned Busch’s previous teams so often in the past. With Gibson’s guidance, Busch turned his biggest liability into a strength, harnessing his competitive fire and focusing it on the race track, rather than his teammates.
"There's a bond we share with Kurt that a lot of drivers don't have with their teams," said Gibson recently. ”He is so involved in the changes that we do. He's in the loop 100%. We don't do anything unless we discuss it with him.
"I applaud him for his dedication. He is involved. He is engaged. And that is what got us where we're at today.”
|Van Metre and Busch were married |
earlier this year.
The final cog in Busch’s resurrection has been his wife, the former Ashley Van Metre. A professional polo player and model, Van Metre instantly understood and accepted Busch’s demanding lifestyle, providing a degree of grounding and acceptance that he lacked in the past.
“My mood is better when Ashley is at the track,” said Busch in a recent New York Times interview. “My antics over the years are well documented. My age has helped me change, (but) Ashley has committed so much time to me and to our relationship. Her dad has quizzed me on being mature and wise. Those talks have been so beneficial. They even brought me closer to my own father.”
Busch’s mother, Gaye, also gives Van Metre a full measure of credit for her son’s emotional turnaround.
“Kurt’s career is stressful and if he has a bad day, Ashley understands and makes him feel better,” she said. “When he sees her, he gets giddy. He lights up. It makes me so happy… that I cry.”
There were more than a few tears in yesterday’s jubilant Victory Lane. Tears for a man and a race team that have come of age together; finding solid ground, both on and off the race track.
TNS / Stephen M. Dowell
It took 16 years for Kurt Busch to earn the title of Daytona 500 champion. He finished second on three different occasions, chasing Michael Waltrip (2003), Jeff Gordon (2005) and then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman (2008) to the stripe in NASCAR’s most coveted event.
In marked contrast to prior seasons, when minor glitches often triggered volcanic outbursts of negative emotion, Busch remained calm Sunday, despite an early pit road speeding penalty that forced him to restart at the rear of the field, a crash that damaged the nose of his Ford Fusion and a faulty rear-view mirror that dislodged in the race’s final stage.
"My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go,” said Busch in Victory Lane. ““I thought about how Ashley would have handled that… what she would do. The more I run this race, the more I've learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip. I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn't even see the cars behind me. I just heard my spotter in my ear.”
"I told Kurt it was probably the most patient, best race he’s ever run,” said Stewart, a 17-time Daytona 500 competitor who never managed to hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy. “He’s very deserving of this win.”
For NASCAR’s former bad boy, now thoroughly soaked with champagne in a raucous Daytona Victory Lane, 2015 may as well have been a thousand years ago.