By JENNA FRYER / The Associated Press
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Busch’s latest brush with NASCAR cost him $25,000, and proved he’s still a work in progress when it comes to maturity.
But Busch bristles at the notion that his antics and outbursts have kept him from winning a Sprint Cup championship.
Busch enters Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway ranked seventh in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. He’s a bystander in the three-driver title race featuring Denny Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending champion.
“This year, I feel like we were in contention up until we had a couple of bad races,” Busch said.
The first bad race was Kansas, when David Reutimann intentionally wrecked him as retaliation for earlier contact. Then his engine failed at California, and finally last weekend’s meltdown at Texas.
Busch spun early in the race and had to go to pit road for some quick repairs. NASCAR said he was speeding in his push to beat the pace car back onto the track, and he was ordered back to pit road for a penalty.
While serving the penalty, he gestured obscenely to the NASCAR official guarding his car, and the one-finger salute was captured live on ESPN. NASCAR called him for unsportsmanlike conduct, parked him for two laps, and Busch never recovered while finishing 32nd.
Busch apologized after the race for his behavior, which included a rant on his team radio, and reiterated his contrition after NASCAR fined him and placed him on probation through the end of the year.
Now he’s at Phoenix, trying to put it all behind him.
“I feel real comfortable with NASCAR officials,” Busch said. “I have a great relationship with quite a few of them. I feel like the time that I’ve built with them has been really good. It’s not something where the whole relationship is tarnished in one weekend.
“I’ve built a great relationship with those guys where now I’m not on such great grounds, but I’m a lot better than what I was, say, four years ago.”
Busch has indeed made strides since 2007, when despite his enormous talent, Hendrick Motorsports tired of the tantrums and shockingly fired him to make room for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Busch was snapped up by Joe Gibbs Racing, and enjoyed immediate success. He won eight Cup races and led the points most of the season, only to see the wheels fall off when the Chase began. He threw in the towel after two poor finishes at the start of the Chase, leading many to believe he was giving up too easily.
Last season was a roller-coaster: Busch either won or wrecked trying, and the sporadic results cost him a spot in the 12-driver Chase field. It also cost crew chief Steve Addington his job — he was fired with a month to go in the season — and Busch became Dave Rogers’ problem.
Rogers has done well with Busch this season, pushing back over the radio when Busch shows signs of losing his temper. And he was loud and clear last week in scolding Busch.
“Kyle, stop, please!” Rogers yelled. “We all work too hard for this! You’re costing us. Bring it to pit road, park it for two laps.”
Busch is up front in acknowledging his misconduct. But don’t tell that’s why he hasn’t won a title.
“Whether or not (my maturity) is the cause for me not being able to contend for a championship, I would have to disagree 100 percent,” he said. “I won a Nationwide championship last year being the same person I am.”
The obscene gesture wasn’t Busch’s only gaffe last weekend. He used expletives after Saturday’s Nationwide race in contending that NASCAR ignored Carl Edwards’ jumping the final restart.
Busch explains that this swirl of emotion is part of what makes him so competitive. He has three Cup wins this year, 12 wins in the Nationwide Series and seven in the Truck Series.
“There is a fire that has helped me win the races that I’ve been able to win but it also has cost (me) some other times, which was the instance last weekend, which was inappropriate or childish,” Busch said. “I made a mistake, and I regret the mistake I made last week. In going forward, it’s not where I’m in the beginning of growing up. I’m definitely not to the end. I’m somewhere in between.
“There’s a balance there and obviously I haven’t learned exactly everything I’ve wanted to learn yet about being able to control my emotions. There is a better way to do things.”