Where will Kurt Busch land after split with Penske Racing?
Benny Parsons, the 1973 Sprint Cup champion and 1975 Daytona 500 winner, explained the difference between a driver and a team: "Drivers win races, but teams win championships." It is a concise assessment that was true when the late Parsons said it many years ago and it remains accurate today.
Kurt Busch faces an arduous rebuilding process following his departure from Penske Racing. It's never good to be a free agent in December. The well-funded seats with the top teams are taken --with the exception of the No. 22 at Penske Racing that Busch vacated -- and Busch's opportunities for 2012 are limited to teams that finished in the 30s in owner points this season. Busch has at least one Cup victory in each of the past 10 seasons, 24 total, and it will be a notable achievement if he's able to keep the streak alive next year.
Busch's long-term challenge is even more severe. He may be the 2004 Cup champion, but he's also damaged goods to teams for his disrespectful treatment of teammates and his obscene behavior that turns off sponsors. It's going to take Busch several years to convince teams and sponsors that he's changed. One slip, one tirade, one rant and he's done. It's possible Busch may never race for a top-tier team again, hurting his chances to win a second championship or even make the Chase.
Several doors are already closed forever. Roush Fenway co-owner Jack Roush has vowed never to hire Busch again, following his stormy exit at the end of the 2005 season. Hendrick Motorsports has all four of its drivers under long-term contract. And Penske, of course, won't take Busch back.
There are the unlikely possibilities. Busch's talent would be a nice addition at Joe Gibbs Racing, but having the Busch brothers under the same roof might not be worth the high blood pressure it would cause. Stewart-Haas Racing has 2011 champion Tony, Chaser Ryan Newman and is building a third program for Danica Patrick.
Who's left? Down the road maybe Richard Childress or Earnhardt Ganassi or Michael Waltrip Racing take a flier on Busch. But they'd all need sponsors.
"Kurt's future isn't necessarily about what owner will have him -- it's more about what sponsor will," former Cup crew chief and current television analyst Larry McReynolds said. "There are a lot of owners that probably would create a seat for Kurt Busch because he will win races."
Former driver turned television commentator Jimmy Spencer doesn't think Busch will get a chance with a championship-caliber operation.
"Kurt has disgraced NASCAR and his sponsors," Spencer said. "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."
Busch's first goal has to be finding a team for 2012. It's not going to help him to sit out and try to put together a better deal for 2013. Busch needs to race and behave to begin proving he's sponsor ready.
Phoenix Racing, which finished 30th in the owner points this season with Landon Cassill as its primary driver, and TRG Motorsports, which finished 36th in owner points, don't have a driver signed for 2012.
Owned by James Finch, Phoenix has one Cup victory with Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009. A spokesman for Phoenix said the team was keeping its options open.
TRG is interested in Busch, and a spokesman said owner Kevin Buckler hopes to meet with Busch.
Front Row Motorsports operated a three-car team in 2011 with drivers David Gilliland (30th in driver points), Travis Kvapil and J.J. Yeley (35th in driver points) and are working on bringing all three back in 2012. But Bob Jenkins' team doesn't have any of them under contract.
"We haven't talked with him [Busch] and I can't gauge whether he'd be interested in us," Front Row general manager Jerry Freeze said. "We've been working hard to put together packages to bring back the three drivers we had last season. They're good drivers and good ambassadors for us.
"But if he [Busch] had an interest in us, we'd have to look at it."
For Phoenix, TRG and Front Row, a driver of Busch's skill would be a major addition. But Freeze isn't sure it would help sell sponsorship.
"Is Busch a plus or minus [in selling sponsorship] considering the recent events?" Freeze asked. "He's super talented, but is there a negative stigma attached to him? It's something that has to be weighed out by any team. I don't see any of the major teams signing him for next year. He brings some value, but how much?
"Maybe this will be a wake-up call and he can get his anger issues under control."
Is it possible somebody like Earnhardt Ganassi or Michael Waltrip could scramble and put together a package for Busch in 2012? Stranger things have happened in racing, and Busch would be a boost to both teams on the track. Off it, it would be risky for a sponsor relationship. But given the difficulty of finding sponsorship in a short period, it seems likely Busch will be with a lower-tier team. And that's where he belongs. He needs to prove he belongs at the top by restarting near the bottom.