How Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch can repair their images in 2012
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Kurt and Kyle Busch have a combined 47 wins (24 for Kurt; 23 for Kyle) and 290 top-10s in NASCAR's premier division. Kurt also has a 2004 Sprint Cup title, and Kyle has an incredible 51 Nationwide Series and 30 Camping World Truck Series victories.
But their "Busch League" behavior overshadows those impressive accomplishments. Late last year NASCAR parked Kyle, the younger Busch, for the Nationwide and Cup races at Texas after he intentionally crashed Ron Hornaday Jr. during a caution period of the CWTS race. He also incurred additional penalties from Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsors Z-Line and M&Ms.
Kurt's season-long bitterness toward Penske Racing officials led to his ouster at season's end. Ironically, when Shell decided to leave Richard Childress Racing for Penske following the 2010 season, the sponsor specifically requested Kurt as their driver.
Those are just the most recent incidents involving the Busch Brothers, who have a long rap sheet. This season will be pivotal for both drivers and here's how they can get their careers back on track.
While a wholesale change is not necessary for either driver, both need to soften up their rough edges. Much of Kurt's hostilities at Penske Racing had been brewing for years, and he was never afraid to call out team owner Roger Penske, team president Tim Cindric, competition director Tom German or then-crew chief Steve Addington. For the most part, Penske Racing management seemed to grin and bear it because Kurt is truly one of the most talented drivers on the racetrack, capable of contending for victories and championships on a regular basis.
But as most of us know, complaining about the boss is never an admirable quality, and while many bosses often tolerate a certain level of criticism to have a talented individual on the staff, Kurt more than crossed that line. Once both sides lost confidence in each other, it was time for Kurt to go.
As for Kyle, Joe Gibbs Racing still sees tremendous potential. Despite his petulant qualities, he is still one of the most exciting drivers and is capable of multiple victories in a season. Kyle is a more likable character, striking a tone with smart alecks everywhere who can accept him as one of their very own.
Kurt needs to take the necessary steps to distance himself from his red-faced, foul-tempered reputation. NASCAR fans have seen him sling profanity-laced tirades over the team's radio and heard his biting sarcasm and criticism of his fellow team members, drivers and the media. Although it is not necessary to anesthetize his personality, because fire shows true passion, he just needs to bring it down a few notches. Save the tirades for the privacy of the race shop or the back of the team transporter. And when it is time to lose the temper, try to keep it from turning into unabashed rage.
Kyle seems to draw strength from getting showered with boos from thousands of fans, but Kurt probably falls on the other side of that equation. Anything he can do to be more fan friendly could help his cause greatly.
Don't brush by autograph seekers in a huff like they don't exist; stop and take time to engage with the spectators. After all, the little girl that gets the autograph will turn into a lifelong fan, and the young boy that gets his hat signed will probably have a new hero. But dissing them like they are non-existent doesn't help anybody.
Yes, NASCAR drivers get pulled in many different directions and have plenty on their mind during a race weekend, but a simple act of kindness and humility can pay big dividends in the long run.
Because he is sponsored by M&Ms, Kyle has a fairly large following of youngsters. His commercials are fun, and the company is able to market the driver to all age groups. For much of Kurt's career at Penske Racing, he was sponsored by a beer company, which meant he was age-limited in terms of promotions. Switching to an oil company last year allowed him to come out of his shell, but gas and oil probably doesn't resonate to a youngster like M&Ms.
But, a little more fan engagement can help turn those jeers into cheers for both brothers.
And the same goes for dealing with the media. Remember that those who do the reporting often influence opinions of the race fan, so proper dealings with the media can be extremely beneficial in the long-term. Drivers that treat the media with a certain degree of respect are often coddled while those who are antagonistic toward the media often never get the benefit of the doubt.
Don't give the media reason to doubt your statements or your sincerity.
Kurt has moved away from making overt actions on the racetrack, except for a few run-ins with Jimmie Johnson last season. Kyle, however, needs to think before taking action on the racetrack. From retaliation against such drivers as Kevin Harvick -- his long-standing nemesis -- to his over-the-top ramming of Hornaday into the wall at Texas, Kyle tends to get into trouble for what he does behind the wheel.
While it's hard to change someone's habits and personality, there is time for the Busch brothers to adhere to this. Kurt is only 33 and Kyle is 26. Both drivers have very long careers ahead of them and can make it much more enjoyable if they simply think before acting.
After leaving Penske Racing, Kurt expressed the desire to get professional treatment to help control his anger and rage. Kyle has also had the opportunity to control his temper. This is a good place to start because even the best balanced individuals can always benefit from a little counseling. And while passion is a key ingredient in competition, a rage-filled driver behind the wheel of a high-speed race car is not a good thing.
The key is for both Busch Brothers to find the balance that keeps passion from turning into anger and, eventually, rage.
When Kurt left Penske Racing he stated a desire to make racing "fun again." When he signed with team owner James Finch at Phoenix Racing, some wondered how much fun it was going to be for Kurt, dropping from an elite team to a journeyman operation such as Phoenix's. But this may be a good place for Kurt to rehabilitate his racing career. After all, the pressure to perform will be diminished. This team won't be expected to make the Chase, so low expectations give this combination a chance to succeed. And don't underestimate Kurt's ability as a driver because he will still find a way to win at least one race -- maybe two -- in 2012.
As for Kyle, he's already got all the tools to win a first championship. Now that Jimmie Johnson's streak of five-straight Cup titles has come to an end and Tony Stewart is the reigning champion, the battle for the 2012 Cup title could be wide open. And Kyle is at the point in his career where he can step up his game, win more races and go on to win a championship.
And nothing could be more fun for Kyle at this stage of his career than finally winning a title in NASCAR's top division.