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Busch seeks brand new way

The often-embattled 2004 series champion insists his real personality will come out now that he has left Roush Racing.

By BRANT JAMES
Published January 19, 2006


DAYTONA BEACH - Kurt Busch was just starting out when he first reached out to Roger Penske. Five years later, the storied team owner's reaching out to him has allowed the often embattled 2004 Nextel Cup champion to start over. Again.

This time it will be different, Busch says, because now he'll stop playing the roles scripted for him by his former employer, Roush Racing, with whom he won 14 races and a title but says he lost the right to be himself.

"I wish I could do it all over again the right way," Busch said, sitting over a breakfast of an English muffin and a can of V-8 at a hotel near Daytona International Speedway. "There's so many things that go through careers and every year things are different. Not just one moment can define anybody. You have your good years, your bad years, bad day, good days."

Busch has admitted he was unprepared to handle the leap to, and then quick success in, Nextel Cup in his early 20s. He displayed enough ill temper to alienate other drivers, sponsors and eventually former team owner Jack Roush. Now a month before he begins his seventh season at NASCAR's highest level, replacing one of the sport's most popular drivers - the retired Rusty Wallace - Busch, 27, very much needs an image makeover.

So far it's working well. He ad libs with Wallace, a gifted gabber, cracking up the execs at sponsor functions. His squint has broadened into an approachable gaze and everyone, he said, will finally get to see the "real" Kurt Busch. This one, he and his new handlers swear, is, in no particular order "fun," "loose," and "really an all right guy."

"I'm trying to be more loose," he said, "be myself."

Busch's metallic blue No. 2 Dodge, still immediately associated with Wallace, earns him an entry with fans. It's up to him to keep them.

"Yesterday," he said, "I'm driving through the pits and everybody's waving. I'm like, "All right, I'm waving back, but I don't know if you guys know I'm in here, not Rusty.' "

So determined was he to display the new him this week, ... "I signed a dog," Busch sighed. "The lady had to have her dog signed. She had the dog in a stroller. I signed it, right on the side of it. It didn't really turn out all that good."

Busch took the brunt of run-ins with former driver Jimmy Spencer, where he got a fist in the mouth, NASCAR sanction and fan scorn for his trouble in 2003. His image took another punch in November when he was suspended by Roush with two races left in the season after being cited in Phoenix for criminal reckless driving and verbally abusing police, according to police documents.

But he is not willing to take the blame for his train wreck relationship with Roush. Things apparently were so bad so long, he began making contingency plans early.

Busch said he prefers to keep "vague" the origins of the negotiations that eventually led to a surprise announcement in August that he had signed a deal to replace Wallace beginning in 2007. But a chance meeting with Penske at a Fort Worth-area airport during Busch's rookie year clearly made an impression and secured a lifeline he chose to grab after his career bloomed.

"April 2001, I believe," Busch recalled, almost reverently. "I wanted to go up and say hello. I mean, that's Mr. Roger Penske. He put his arm around me and said, "Son, I'm going to keep my eye on you.' It meant the world to me. I wasn't trying to go out and make all the business relationships I could. It was Roger, I wanted to go say hello. And from that time forward, we somewhat had a dialogue with one another without really saying much."

Roush, citing sponsor commitments, vowed to hold Busch to his contract to drive the No. 97 car for 2006. He had signed Jamie McMurray, who was still under contract to drive the No. 42 Dodge for Chip Ganassi Racing, to replace Mark Martin in 2007. After a summer of haggling among three powerful teams, Busch and McMurray gained their releases for 2006. McMurray eventually replaced Busch in a renumbered No. 26.

Though Busch won Roush his second Nextel Cup championship in 17 years of toil, the organization maintains it is thrilled to be rid of him.

"Kurt was kind of the odd guy out among our drivers," Roush said Tuesday. "He was different than the rest of them in terms of background and outlook and the way he dealt with his frustrations; he was really a surprise to me and he was out of step with the moral code of the team and of what the profile of a driver and what the fans are looking for. It was a challenge to keep the sponsors happy and keep Kurt in check and happily I won't have that (anymore)."

Part of the reason for the friction with Roush could be that both are professed perfectionists - though Busch claims Penske runs a "tighter ship" - and Busch had his own ideas how his career should be run from 2001, when Roush promoted him to full-time Cup driver after 14 starts in the truck series.

"He came to me and said, "I want to take you to (Nextel) Cup,' " Busch recalled. "I was like, "No, you don't. What are you talking about?' He said he needed somebody to drive the 97 (Ford), but Chad Little was driving it. He said the sponsor wanted somebody new to drive the car. And I'm going, "I'm not ready. I know I am not ready.'

"But I said, "I am ready if you're ready, but it's going to be a mess when we get there.' "

Perhaps readier now than ever, and ready to clean up the mess, Busch is ready to start again.