Kurt Busch joked with Mike Helton last week that he had been born into the wrong era of racing. A quarter century ago, he told NASCAR's president, he would have flourished, both as a driver and as a personality.
"I missed the '80s, man," Busch said on Monday in a phone interview with SI.com, "when it [racing] was fun."
Perhaps. Present day remains a challenge for the talented and tempestuous 33-year-old, however. The future, he insists, holds better things. That future began on Monday as Busch and Penske Racing cut ties after six years together. For Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion who had multiple years remaining on his contract, it's a chance to find another job. For Penske, it's an opportunity to recover its stoic public image after a litany of highly publicized tirades from their former employee.
"There was never one moment or single incident," Busch said of the disintegration of the working relationship. "It evolved through the second half of the season. We can point at different moments. Roger [Penske] and I discussed this, and I am grateful for the opportunity that he gave me."
Busch has recently utilized a sports psychologist to help mitigate the confrontations that came to embody his season. Whether those sessions create a personality suitable for modern NASCAR fans and monied sponsors is yet uncertain.
"I recognize I need help and that's why I'm taking these steps with a sport psychologist, and over the last couple months he's pointed out some quick pointers. It's not going to change overnight, but I'm working with him and everyone around me," Busch said. "I want to put the fun back into my racing, and I can honestly say I just didn't enjoy the formality of the processes of the Penske Racing team."
When asked whether preconceived or pre-existing notions influenced reaction to his behavior, Busch admitted: "I think my frankness and intensity doesn't play well with others."
This season was no exception. A campaign in which Busch won twice and raced within the top-five in points for much of the year was marked by his vehement critiques over team radio, confrontations with three media members and crew chief Steve Addington's departure after the season. (Addington joined Tony Stewart as crew chief shortly thereafter.) A video of Busch verbally abusing ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch in the final race of the season, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, led to a $50,000 fine from NASCAR and a rebuke from both team officials and sponsor Shell-Pennzoil.
Penske officials stressed the asserted "mutual" nature of the separation. Shell-Pennzoil released a statement on Monday stating "Shell and Pennzoil utilize our motorsports program to gain technical knowledge for our products and brands and to promote them to consumers in a positive way. As such, we support the mutual agreement by Penske Racing and Kurt Busch to end their driver/race team relationship, effective immediately."
One candidate to replace Busch would be David Ragan, who's still under contract at Roush Fenway but without a ride due to the closing of the No. 6 program. He's a young (25) race-winner with a pliant, presentable, non-controversial persona. Roush told SI.com "If I can't find sponsorship for him [Ragan], I'll be happy to release him to another team."
Busch, meanwhile, said he is already exploring the options that come with his new freedom, insisting that there are opportunities, even though most driver assignments are sealed by August each season. A driver who has raced for two of the most powerful teams in the sport -- Penske and Roush Fenway, where he won his championship before being released in 2005 -- seems resigned to the fact he will need to plumb the sport's more threadbare options. But there are options, he said.
"The phone is [ringing] off the hook as we talk," he said. "It's a chance to pause, take a deep breath. I feel a lot lighter already just by being able to have all these options to look at.
"Racing to me has never been about the money. I just want to get back to having fun in the race car."