By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Greg Biffle says Kurt Busch's reputation has taken a hit even though alcohol wasn't a factor in last week's incident.
MIAMI - Less than a week after Kurt Busch was suspended for the final two races by Roush Racing for his conduct following a traffic citation outside Phoenix International Raceway, former teammate Greg Biffle said the defending Nextel Cup champion got a "bum rap" for having his reputation sullied as a drunk driver.
But even though Maricopa County Sheriff's authorities admitted this week that Busch's blood-alcohol content of .017 was well under the .08 at which Arizona presumes someone to be impaired, Roush Racing president Geoff Smith defended the decision to sack him.
"We did not suspend him because he had a drink with dinner," Smith said by cell phone.
Smith said the reason the talented but temperamental 27-year-old was suspended was because of his verbal discourse with officers as they cited him for criminal reckless driving about 3 miles from the track. Busch was said to be abusive, according to the Arizona Republic, saying "you ought to be directing traffic."
"He said this was a "meaningless' ticket," Smith said. "That was not quite correct when he was cited for several different things," including attempting to evade police and running a stop sign.
The incident and particularly its aftermath underscores, however, that in a sport where perception equals reality, any misstep can cost a driver dearly. Busch, however, will drive a No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing South beginning next season.
"I feel bad for him," said Tony Stewart, who has endured several image nightmares in a seven-year Nextel Cup career. "I've put myself in situations not like that - the same but different. Just being in that situation is something you don't want anyone else to go through. But at same time, (the) good thing about it is everyone has put it in perspective. It was a situation that was blown out of proportion."
Because a Maricopa County police spokesman reported an erroneous order of events, that Busch's breath smelled of alcohol and made no mention of the initial BAC test Busch passed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a firestorm erupted regarding how sponsor Crown Royal would react. Smith cited the image-conscious nature of NASCAR and its sponsors in announcing the suspension Sunday and said all "involved parties" were "all in agreement" about the suspension. He said Crown Royal did not insist upon it.
Though Busch was never popular with his peers, Biffle empathized, in his own way.
"In his defense, yeah, he acted like a jerk. Yeah, he might have been speeding or done something he shouldn't have," he said. "But are those grounds for taking him out of the race car and not letting him drive for Crown Royal, which is why the whole base of this thing happened when alcohol wasn't even a factor in the whole thing?"
Biffle and Stewart said track security can be overly aggressive, especially at Phoenix, where he thinks they "enjoy messing with everybody."
"We go to 36 races a year, you show them your hard card, and they know you're a driver and you don't have your motor home parking pass," Stewart said. "Well, you're just now getting there, so are you going to get your pass so you can get to your motor home and pick up your pass? Sometimes that logic doesn't get it. ... I've had to sit out there for 30 minutes before someone comes by and says, "Hey, this guy's all right, let him in,' and still have to argue with them to let you in.
"Doesn't surprise me that someone has finally had trouble out there with those guys."
Stewart, who raced at Phoenix as an open-wheel driver, said "we never had any problems until (International Speedway Corp.) got a hold of it, to be honest."
Drivers might have a hard time generating public sympathy from fans for having to wait a half-hour to drive their expensive motor home into a choice infield spot. A tarnished image, a tough thing to repair, is something anyone can relate to.
"All of us, including myself, accuse him of drunk driving," Biffle said.
"Instantly, that's our first thought."