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Kurt Busch
finds clarity
NASCAR driver, Las Vegas native finds
a happy place at career crossroad
NASCAR driver and Las Vegas native Kurt Busch was once considered so toxic he was almost dropped by his main sponsor after winning a series championship. At 41, he has mellowed out and is having one of the best seasons in his career. (The Associated Press)

NASCAR’s Kurt Busch finds a happy place at career crossroad

After the recent Southern 500, NASCAR driver Kurt Busch of Las Vegas went on Twitter to recap his evening. He wrote that he led a ton of laps, absorbed damage in a crash, fought back to seventh place. That he had a great car and probably deserved a better result.

“But more importantly, it’s going to be a scary week for all those who’ll be affected by this hurricane,” Busch wrote. “Thinking of the Bahamas and all in its path. Be safe everyone.”

This is the guy who challenged Barry Bonds and Michael Vick for the dubious title of “World’s Most Hated Athlete?”

The guy considered so toxic he was nearly dropped by his primary sponsor after winning the series championship?

The guy who can find his way to the NASCAR hauler for a disciplinary hearing while wearing a blindfold and walking backward?

It was thought this might be Busch’s last season, and that Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway his last race on his hometown track. But at 41, he seems to be driving better than ever and with a much cooler head — in a recent race at Kentucky, he even outdrafted kid brother Kyle Busch for his 31st career victory.

It was like Racer X beating Speed Racer in the old cartoons.

Maturity, it has been said, is not measured by age; it’s an attitude built from experience. In NASCAR, they put it in slightly different terms.

 

“Different guy,” said Clint Bowyer, Busch’s former teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing. “One-eighty, you know what I mean? They say people don’t change. Well, that cat did. And for the better.”

After signing a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing last off-season and contemplating retirement, it now appears Kurt Busch may be back in 2020.

“He’s gotten to the place where he’s more mature or whatever you want to call it, and you don’t really see him getting into altercations or things like that,” said Kyle Larson, his current teammate at Ganassi. “I’ve enjoyed being teammates with him, and obviously he’s an amazing race car driver, too.”

Some of the same critics who said Kurt Busch would never change are now saying he’s a dark horse to win his second Cup Series championship 15 years after he won his first.

Unlike Hurricane Dorian, nobody could have seen that coming.

Rubbin’, racin’, fightin’

Kurt Busch became a full-time Cup Series driver in 2001. It took him only three years to win the series championship but far less time to make enemies on the track. In his rookie race at the ill-fated 2001 Daytona 500 in which Dale Earnhardt was killed, Busch became the last driver to be flipped off by the stock car racing legend.

Busch was bold, brash, not easily intimidated. Not even by The Intimidator.

The list of drivers with whom he has feuded is longer than the backstretch at Talladega Superspeedway. Busch even tangled with his little brother during the 2007 NASCAR All-Star race. That was in May. The siblings didn’t speak again until Thanksgiving when their grandmother negotiated a truce at the dinner table.

Kurt’s relationships off the track also became messy. He tested the patience of car owners, alienated sponsors, infuriated fans.

In 2005, Busch became argumentative with Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies after being pulled over in Phoenix; in 2011, he verbally abused pit road reporters during TV interviews; in 2015, he was suspended for the Daytona 500 after being accused of assault by his then girlfriend (Busch did not face charges).

 

You wouldn’t believe any of it after talking with him now.

“When I was charging my way up and then straight to Cup, all of that happened in a six-year period — I was 22 years old and racing against Dale Sr., and I had no idea how fast everything went,” Busch said before throwing out the first pitch at a recent White Sox-Indians game in Cleveland.

“Settle down, learn from mistakes. With age comes wisdom. It’s neat how it has come full circle for me.”

Said fellow racer and Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan: “Life happens and you learn. Kurt has had a long, hard road and come out the other side with a great life and a great family (Busch and polo player Ashley Van Metre married in 2017) and a great new outlook on life.

“I love the person he’s become. I think even he would say that he’s in a better place than he’s ever been.”

Brotherly respect

Despite what a new TV reality series featuring their wives might suggest, Kurt also said he and Kyle have been bonding, at least away from the track. On it, they’ve engaged in two duels resulting in 1-2 family finishes, with Kyle winning at Bristol, Tennessee, in April and Kurt in thrilling fashion at Kentucky in July.

After Kyle won, Kurt said he would have wrecked his brother had he gotten close enough. After Kurt won, Kyle said Kurt could find his own way home — the brothers had been planning to share a ride on a private plane for which Kyle had arranged.

It was assumed they were joking. But with the Busch brothers, one never knows.

“When I first broke through in the Cup Series, Kyle was just starting to race Legends cars,” Kurt said about the age gap between them and the perceived lack of brotherly love. “We’re 6½ years apart, but since we’ve become adults and with my little nephew, Brexton (Kyle’s son), around, it really has drawn us closer.

 

“There’s a respect that continues to grow. He has always said that I carved a path that made it more difficult for him when he came into the Cup Series — because of my reputation or what was being written or talked about — but I said: ‘Wait a minute. Didn’t I get us here? Give me a little credit.’ ”

With their grandmother no longer around to broker peace, Clint Bowyer gave it his best shot.

“They’re champions, both are a hell of a wheelman, and it’s pretty crazy that both are as good as they are,” Bowyer said.

Two weeks ago at Darlington, Kyle clinched the regular-season championship. He has won four races in 2019, tying him with two other former series champions, Martin Truex Jr., and last year’s winner Joey Logano, atop the speed chart. Driving a car that finished 20th last year with Jamie McMurray behind the wheel, Kurt is seeded eighth opening the playoffs.

Kurt Busch may be kinder and gentler and, at this stage of a potential Hall of Fame career, willing to help elderly ladies cross the street. But his former teammate said none of that makes him any easier to pass on race day.

“He’s still a Busch,” Clint Boywer said. “He’s still a pain in the (rear spoiler).”

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