There is no more polarizing of a figure in NASCAR than Kurt Busch.
Last offseason he lost his ride with Penske Racing -- after verbally abusing a reporter at Miami-Homestead Speedway in November -- and was hired by Phoenix Racing, a second-tier team. Busch said all the right things back in January during the preseason media tour, that he was hoping to bring back the joy to his racing career, that he was looking forward to being an underdog, that he couldn't wait to get his priorities back in order.
Well, none of that lasted very long. His emotions repeatedly got the best of him in the early races of 2012 and then at Dover International Speedway in June he physically threatened a reporter. This prompted NASCAR to suspend him for one race and caused plenty of scribes to begin writing the obituary on his Cup career. His public image was tarred and he was loudly booed last weekend at Sonoma when he was introduced to the crowd.
Yet to the people that really matter to Busch -- his crew guys -- he is almost universally adored. I spent a weekend with Busch and his crew in the summer of 2010 at Michigan International Speedway, chronicling for a magazine piece their every move from practice to qualifying through the race. Busch gave me unlimited access, and every crew member I talked to over those three days expressed sincere fondness for their driver, even though he often unleashed his temper on them in the bluest of language. Why the love? Two reasons:
One: He's viewed as a "pure racer," as a rare-breed in the sport who doesn't care if he's liked by his peers or the media. All that truly matters to Busch -- and I've been covering him since 2004 and spent a lot of time with him over the years -- is what happens on the track. To gritty, salt-of-the-earth guys that typically populate pit crews, this is a very admirable quality.
Two: Busch, who won the 2004 championship, is immensely talented. "There's no one I'd rather have behind the wheel for me than Kurt," one of the crewmen from Penske told me back at Michigan. "He'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And there aren't many guys like that anymore."
Busch reminded everyone of his skill behind the wheel last Sunday at Sonoma. Though he was driving for an underfunded team, he finished third, completing a near flawless race. His setup that he helped to perfect during practice sessions was so spot-on that it was used by both Jimmie Johnson (who came in fifth) and Jeff Gordon (sixth) of Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies engines to Phoenix Racing and therefore has access to its setup information.
So where does Busch go from here? He's currently 27th in the standings and has no hope of qualifying for the Chase. But if he keeps performing like he did at the Sonoma road course, he'll surely land an elite ride next season. A top-10 run on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, where he finished ninth last season, would further Busch's cause to find work next season.
To find out where I think he'll be in 2012, check out my NASCAR column in the magazine next week (hint: it's my believe he'll be teamed with another driver that can also be short-tempered at times).
Here are four other drivers to watch this weekend in the Bluegrass State:
There's been an interesting dynamic between the Busch brothers over the last few years. When one is embroiled in controversy, like Kurt has been in 2012, the other usually stays quiet and off-the-radar, like Kyle thus far this season.
Kyle is the reigning race winner at Kentucky and needs another victory to essentially lockup a wild-card berth for the Chase. He won earlier this year at Richmond but hasn't finished higher than 17th in his last four starts, which has caused him to tumble four spots in the standings to 12th. But I think his fortunes will change on Saturday night; he's my pick to take the checkers.
Between now and the start of the playoffs in September, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have one goal: win races.
Johnson, who is fourth in points, already has two victories in 2012, which ties him with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski for most in the series. Given that Johnson can have several sloppy finishes and still make the Chase, expect JJ and Knaus to gamble with setups and pit strategy to go all-or-nothing for a few more Ws (and the critical bonus points you get for each win) over the summer months. Johnson finished third at Kentucky last July.
I think this is a very important race for Kenseth, the points leader. This week he and Roush Fenway Racing announced they would be parting ways at season's end, which means Kenseth is now officially a lame-duck driver. He'll likely end up at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, but he said repeatedly late this week that he believes he can seriously contend for the title this year.
I'm not so sure. There's a long history of lame-duck drivers fading once they announce they're leaving their current teams, but Kenseth and his No. 17 crew can make a statement on Saturday night with a strong run. Kenseth was sixth here last year.
Earnhardt is coming off a 23rd place run at Sonoma, which was his worst finish of the season and dropped him from second to third in the standings. To allay fears in Earnhardt Nation of an impending slump, NASCAR's most popular driver needs to flash impressive speed on Saturday.
So far this year on 1.5-mile, intermediate-length tracks like Kentucky, Earnhardt has consistently run around the 10th position. He'll need to improve on that if he's going to be a serious contender in the Chase, where five of the 10 playoff venues are intermediate tracks. So in many ways this will be a telling weekend for the No. 88 team -- especially given that Earnhardt struggled here last year and finished 30th.