UPDATE: Kurt Busch lost his second and final appeal of the suspension on Saturday. His attorney, Rustin Hardin, released the following statement:
"We are unhappy with the latest decision to deny our re-appeal, but we will continue to exhaust every procedural and legal remedy we have available to us until Kurt Busch is vindicated. Along the way we intend to continue to call attention to the facts and witnesses that will shed light on Ms. Driscoll's true character, motivations and history."
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Three thoughts on Kurt Busch’s indefinite suspension from NASCAR, which came after a Delaware court ruled Friday "it is more likely than not" Busch committed an act of abuse against his ex-girlfriend in September 2014.
1. The written opinion from the Delaware judge who ordered Busch to stay away from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll was too strong to ignore:
On Friday, Commissioner David W. Jones finally delivered the opinion that he had promised after awarding the protection-from-abuse order against Busch that Driscoll had been actively seeking since mid-December. Jones wrote plainly. He found Driscoll’s version of the pair's encounter at Dover International Speedway on the evening of Sept. 26th, in which she alleged that Busch choked her and three times knocked the back of her head into the bedroom wall of the racer’s motorcoach, to be “more credible based on her demeanor" and her testimony to be “corroborated by documentary evidence” and “corroborated in important respects by the credible testimony of other witnesses.”
As for the story offered by Busch, who said he cupped Driscoll’s cheeks while asking her to exit his motorcoach, Jones said it was “implausible, does not make sense and is unlikely to be true.” Of Kristy Cloutier and Charis Burrett, Busch's personal assistant and business partner, respectively, who attacked Driscoll’s credibility on the stand, Jones called their testimony “so dramatically tarnished by their obvious bias and personal financial interest in [Busch’s] public image and racing career, which according to [Busch’s counsel], could be irreparably damaged if he were to be determined to have committed an act of domestic violence.” Of bus driver Mike Doncheff’s assertion that Driscoll is a trained assassin, the commissioner said Busch’s “summation appears to reflect that [he] has, appropriately, abandoned this argument.”
Still, no line in Jones’s opinion hit harder than this: “Given [Busch’s] passion for his racing career and his intemperate and frequently violent reactions to seemingly minor racing setbacks, the Court finds that there exists a likelihood of future acts of domestic violence against [Driscoll].”
Jones’ words clearly resonated with NASCAR. During a hastily convened news conference on Friday night, executive vice president Steve O’Donnell announced Busch’s suspension under its code of conduct guidelines, specifically rules 12.1.a (actions detrimental to stock car racing) and 12.8 (behavioral penalty). He added that NASCAR arrived at its decision “based on our review of the available details, including the court’s findings that were released earlier today.” He restated the seriousness with which NASCAR takes “the broader issue of domestic violence." He granted Busch an opportunity to appeal the decision under an expedited process. (Later Friday, NASCAR confirmed that Busch's appeal would be heard Saturday.) All told, O’Donnell spoke for a little over a minute before stepping down from the dais. It was not the visual the sport had hoped for two days before its signature event, the Daytona 500. Busch was due to start fourth on the grid.
2. The Stewart-Haas contingency plan will be tested:
This might be the most significant start for Regan Smith, a seasoned veteran who has spent more of his eight-year Cup career as a utility player than an everyday starter. But it’s not the first time he’s been called up from the Stewart-Haas bench. After Tony Stewart's accident in upstate New York in August that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward Jr., Smith took the three-time Cup champion’s place on the grid at Watkins Glen and crashed out to a 37th-place finish. Daytona, alas, has been just as unkind to the 31-year-old New Yorker. In 11 starts on the 2.5-mile oval, he’s placed in the top-10 twice. (Compare that with Busch, who finished third here last year and scored five top-threes before that.) If there’s an upshot, it’s that one of those top-10s came last year.
Expecting Smith to produce a performance that is as strong or stronger might be a bit of a tall task, however. He hasn’t had much time to acclimate himself behind the wheel and will start at the pack of the pack, in accordance with NASCAR’s driver substitution rules.
3. Busch’s winding road just turned into something resembling a cul-de-sac:
At least as far as his career is concerned. With Busch's appeal coming Saturday, the matter could be successfully resolved before Sunday, which would technically allow him to race the 500. The catch is that he can't rely on representation from attorney Rusty Hardin, who said he was “extremely disappointed” by NASCAR’s decision. (Compare that statement to Stewart-Haas executive vice president Joe Custer, who said “we understand NASCAR’s position regarding Kurt Busch and accept their decision.”) No, Busch will have to represent himself in front of a three-member panel—and produce the $500 processing fee for that privilege. Of course, if he were to win his appeal, the question then becomes, what would he drive?
Shortly after O’Donnell’s announcement, Chevrolet announced that it was suspending its partnership with Busch. He could always land a ride with another team in driving for another manufacturer. Or trade on his IndyCar relationship with Andretti Motorsports (with whom he teamed for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and finished sixth) and bolt for IndyCar. To that end, an IndyCar executive confirmed Friday night that top brass are planning on meeting Saturday to discuss the possibility of Busch resuming his open wheel career.
He could also try and find a ride in sports cars or rally cars. Busch, a 2004 Cup champion, certainly has talent to spare. But would potential partners be willing to sign him with this cloud hanging over him? The smart money says no, at least not in the short term.