Last week NASCAR fined Kurt Busch $50,000 for his poor behavior at the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead. Busch made an inappropriate hand gesture while driving his Dodge to the garage and verbally abused ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch as they waited for a live interview following a transmission failure early in the race.
The target of the hand gesture wasn't clear. Maybe Busch was just waving farewell to crew chief Steve Addington, who would depart Penske Racing for Tony Stewart's No. 14 a couple of days later. Busch was undoubtedly frustrated with his situation. He'd run miserably in the second half of the Chase -- 14th at Martinsville was his best finish -- and Homestead was no exception, as he finished 34th and 47 laps down. The frustration continued as an impatient Busch cussed out Dr. Punch, who finally gave up and walked away in an incident caught on video by a fan and posted on You Tube.
Busch's angry outburst wasn't his first this season. He frequently bashed Addington on the radio and had several confrontations with media members. But it may have been his last in a car owned by Roger Penske, who undoubtedly views Busch's behavior as an embarrassment to his very well-respected name, reputation and organization. Penske is known for his loyalty, but he's not going to continue tolerating multiple offenses from anyone. It seems entirely possible, even probable, that Penske will release Busch, perhaps as soon as next week.
Consider the team's statement: "Penske Racing extends its apologies to Dr. Jerry Punch, our media partners and our sponsors and fans for Kurt Busch's inappropriate actions in Homestead on Sunday. These actions do not represent Penske Racing and are inconsistent with the company's standards for behavior, respect for others and professionalism. This matter is being reviewed internally with no further comment at this time."
Reviewed? The issue isn't closed, and the statement opens the door for Busch's departure. There is also the statement from No. 22 sponsor Shell/Pennzoil: "Shell and Pennzoil are disappointed with recent actions by Kurt Busch ... his actions are in no way consistent with the way we want our brands represented and we have expressed our disappointment and concerns directly to Penske Racing."
Penske's deal with Shell/Pennzoil, which concluded its first year in a multi-year contract at Homestead, stretches far beyond Busch. Penske is a transportation giant that controls one of the world's largest automotive groups and truck leasing companies, and it buys massive amounts of Shell and Pennzoil products. It's a classic business-to-business arrangement that also includes Penske's IndyCar team. If Busch is too big a headache, he's expendable.
Busch also has a multi-year contract with Penske and it would be expensive to pay him off. But Penske has done it before, firing Paul Tracy from his IndyCar team a few days after the end of the 1997 season. Tracy won three races -- two on ovals and one on Rio de Janeiro's oval -- for Penske that season and was fifth in the CART championship; teammate Al Unser Jr. was 13th in the points and didn't win a race. Tracy had been the championship leader at midseason and faded with a Penske-built car on the road courses in the second half. The outspoken Tracy told the media, "The car just doesn't have it," and the next thing he knew he was sent packing.
Midway through the 2005 season, Busch announced that he would be leaving Roush Racing for Penske at season's end. He'd won the 2004 Cup championship, but didn't feel fairly compensated and wanted out of Roush despite his contract obligations. After initially protesting, Jack Roush agreed to let Busch leave a year early after Chip Ganassi also allowed Jamie McMurray to depart a year early.
Busch was arrested by a Maricopa (Ariz.) County Sheriff on the Friday night of the 2005 Phoenix Cup weekend, the next-to-last race of the season. He was described as confrontational after being stopped for running a stop sign and was taken into custody when the sheriff smelled alcohol. Busch tested well below the legal limit, but was cited for reckless driving. He eventually pleaded guilty to speeding and received a fine and community service. Roush suspended him for the final two races of the season.
"It's the last straw for Roush Racing," then-Roush president Geoff Smith said. "We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists."
Penske publicly stuck by Busch.
"This situation is unfortunate for high-profile athletes who are under significant scrutiny," he said. "We support him 100 percent for the future and we will work with him to be a great driver."
Busch has won races each season with Penske and has 24 career Cup victories. He's consistently made the Chase, too. But his ballistic behavior hasn't changed in six seasons, and the Penske team statement following Homestead sharply contrasts with the one it made in 2005 at Phoenix.
If Penske does let Busch go, there are no drivers available who could replace his credentials. Candidates would include Brian Vickers, who has made the Chase once, has two Cup victories and is a Nationwide champion; David Reutimann, who has two Cup wins; David Ragan, who won his first Cup race this season and finished 23rd in points; and Casey Mears, who has one Cup victory and is the nephew of Rick Mears, four-time winner of the Indy 500 and a member of the Penske organization since 1978.
Penske would likely offer a one-year contract and any of them would jump at it. Penske also will be bringing in a new crew chief for the No. 22 and the 2012 season would provide an opportunity to evaluate driver and crew chief and, if necessary, go recruit a proven Chase-quality driver. The emergence of Brad Keselowski, fifth in this year's championship with three wins, will be a factor in Penske's decision to keep or release Busch.
My guess: Busch will be leaving. Penske has too much class to drop him during the championship celebration in Busch's hometown of Las Vegas, but it will happen soon.