Kurt Busch flames out

Even for a guy who spends so much time in the fast lane, Kurt Busch went from champ to chump in a hurry. A year ago, he was fighting off nine rivals in the final weeks of a Nextel Cup championship chase Busch would go on to win. But Sunday, he wa...

Even for a guy who spends so much time in the fast lane, Kurt Busch went from champ to chump in a hurry.

A year ago, he was fighting off nine rivals in the final weeks of a Nextel Cup championship chase Busch would go on to win.

But Sunday, he was serving the first of a two-race suspension imposed by team owner Jack Roush, effectively ending his season and what little hope remained of defending the title. And that was after a Friday night run-in with police for driving recklessly.

When an athlete gets in trouble with the law, you often learn a lot about his standing by how much support flows his way. Busch's younger brother, Kyle, wound up winning the Phoenix stop, and not surprisingly, used much of his time on the podium defending Kurt.

"Usually, things in the media are false and that's just what it comes down to sometimes," Kyle said. Asked to elaborate, though, he added, "I'm not going there, bud," and walked out.


When cooler heads prevailed on Kyle to return 20 minutes later, he was more subdued. "There is a lot of speculation out in the media," he said. "And the only things that are out there to acknowledge is the police report and any information Kurt Busch chooses to release in the future."

Kurt did turn up briefly on NBC to offer an abbreviated defense. He denied alcohol was involved and, to be fair, a breath test administered at the scene was inconclusive. The device used by police failed, so Busch was not cited for drinking. Regarding his suspension by the Roush team, Kurt said simply, "That's the decision they made and I will live with it."

Roger Penske, whose team Busch will race for next season, noted the driver made a public apology to the sheriff and added, "We support him 100 percent for the future and we will work with him to be a great driver."

And as far as backing, that was about it.

NASCAR is undergoing a generational shift at the same time the sport is zooming up the charts in popularity. The rewards are bigger, the races closer and tempers shorter than ever. Too many of the younger drivers are looking out for No. 1, and no farther.

That selfishness, both on and off the track, has some people worried about the sport's direction. It moved racing legend Richard Petty to say a few months back, "To be a real, true NASCAR driver, you have to know where the sport came from and you have to respect that history and tradition.

"The guys that don't respect that history and tradition, I don't think they're going to be around all that long," Petty added. "And those guys who don't know the history and tradition, I think it's upon them to learn about it pretty quick if they want to be a success."

Roush started both Kurt and Kyle Busch in the truck series. After five years in stock cars, Kurt was a quick enough study to turn the advantages Roush Racing offered into a Nextel Cup championship. But he remained rough at the edges, combative on the track, defiant in the NASCAR hauler when officials tried to discipline him, and clumsy in interviews.


Instead of winning over fans, Busch kept finding ways to alienate them. His reputation inside racing wasn't helped, either, when he dumped the perennially contending Roush operation to join Penske -- a backward career step -- because the money was better. The suspension was hardly a surprise, given the pressure from sponsors and how much Busch's relationship with the Roush team had deteriorated already.

"We're officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists," team president Geoff Smith said Sunday, "effective today."

It probably had nothing to do with how Roush treated Kurt, but team members likely were still smarting over Kyle's departure a few years earlier. Roush plucked the younger Busch from the truck ranks as a teenager and had big plans for him, too. But when a NASCAR-mandated change in minimum-age requirements effectively voided Kyle's contract, he used the opportunity to switch teams. While their talent was never in question, their judgment was another matter.

Greg Biffle, who drives for Roush and battled the younger Busch before finishing second at Phoenix, called it "neat" that Kyle won at the same racetrack where his brother won in April. About Kurt's suspension, he added, "I think you'd have sympathy for anybody if you put yourself in that situation and got taken out of the race car. But I have absolutely no information about what was going on."

That will come out at a hearing set for December on the reckless driving charge, but it's hard to imagine a scenario that will play out favorably for Kurt Busch. Shortly before beginning his Nextel Cup defense in February, Busch said he'd learned a few lessons, the most important being his inability to take responsibility for mistakes. While his next chance to do that is already on the calendar, it's something Busch can't get to work on soon enough.

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