LONG POND, Pa. — Kurt Busch’s talent behind the wheel has never been challenged.
It’s why he always had a ride.
Busch’s fiery temper has never been fully harnessed and it’s the reason he suddenly has a job to salvage and a reputation to repair.
Busch was absent Friday at Pocono Raceway as part of the one-week suspension levied by NASCAR for verbally abusing a media member. The 2004 Cup champion is not eligible to return to a NASCAR-sanctioned event until June 13. Busch has free time to think about his Tuesday meeting with Phoenix Racing owner James Finch and decide if this frayed relationship can be saved, or, if perhaps a professional divorce is on the horizon.
“I don’t want to lean one way or the other,” Phoenix general manager Steve Barkdoll said Friday. “Ultimately, everybody in this garage knows Kurt’s as good a talent as anybody out there. It’d be crazy for us not to want Kurt in our car. But some things certainly have to change for that to be that way.”
Finch, who was not at the track, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week their partnership will be on a race-by-race basis going forward.
Barkdoll laid out a glum picture of Busch’s first season with underfunded Phoenix.
“We have wrecked 14 cars and we are not attracting any sponsors as of right now,” Barkdoll said. “We want to keep this company going and part of that is to get this turned around. We certainly want Kurt to be part of that, but he’s got to do his part, because James is most certainly doing his part.”
Barkdoll said he thought Busch could pattern this season in the mold of how Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified last year for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Earnhardt was winless, with nine top-10 finishes and three top fives over the first 26 races — not out of reach for a driver like Busch.
“We were hoping to be like a 15th-place car,” Barkdoll said.
All Phoenix got out of Busch was a string of poor results and one giant headache.
Busch got the winless part right, but posted one top 10, finished in the 30s three times, and was no better than 20th in his last five races. He’s 26th in the standings.
He was busted on video having a foul-mouthed confrontation with a Sporting News reporter after Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Dover. The dustup was in violation of the probation he was placed on after an incident last month at Darlington. Busch was fined $50,000 by NASCAR and placed on probation through July 25 for reckless driving on pit road, and a post-race altercation with Ryan Newman’s crew members.
His probation was extended through the end of the year all because he couldn’t keep his cool over an innocuous question.
“It refrains me from not beating the (expletive) out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions. But since I’m on probation, I suppose that’s improper to say as well,” Busch replied.
Busch apologized in a statement Monday night for his behavior and accepted NASCAR’s decision. He also apologized to Phoenix Racing.
Busch said he just wanted to have some fun driving the No. 51 for Phoenix while he rebuilt his image in the hope he could return to a top-tier organization next season. Barkdoll knew the deal. But Busch vowed to them he would consider re-signing if the cars were competitive and he was happy.
“James promised him when we sat down he wouldn’t lack for an engine, he wouldn’t lack for tires,” he said. “James has done his part.”
Busch has failed. He ran the bulk of schedule without a major sponsor and his abrasive personality was a turnoff for the corporate dollars.
“I can’t blame it on that, but it certainly can’t make it any better,” Barkdoll said.
Barkdoll said he’s worked with a driver who wanted to win as much as Busch, and the middling finishes have sparked some of the frustration.
But the excuses and his defenders have worn thin.
“You would think he had gotten enough wake-up calls, but certain things continue,” four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said.
Busch split with Penske Racing at the end of last season because of his behavior. His blow up at a reporter shows not much has changed.
“I’m sure in his mind this is a minor incident and didn’t justify what happened, but eventually you have to start straightening up your act and utilizing your talent on the race track to earn the respect,” Gordon said. “This unfortunately is a step backward for him. I definitely think that the amount of talent he has, if he can control his emotions, he can be at the top of the sport like he was at one time.”
Owners and sponsors will decide with their checkbook if talent overrules temperament.
That’s no lock for Busch.
“If the sponsors are leery, then it puts you in a bad spot as an owner,” team owner and champion driver Tony Stewart said, “unless you have unlimited funding and can just put in there whoever you want.”
Finch does not have unlimited funding.
He turned to David Reutimann to drive the No. 51 Sunday at Pocono. Reutimann was in the mix for a job at Phoenix over the offseason and was scheduled for a shop tour the morning after Phoenix signed Busch. That meeting, of course, was canceled.
But they’ve united this weekend. Reutimann lost his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing and has bounced around teams this season longing for a return to a regular ride. He won one race each during the 2009 and 2010 seasons in the best seasons of his career.
“If you’re looking for a gig, it’s not the best time to be looking for one,” Reutimann said. “I look back on those races, and I was able to help build an organization that was just a start-up. I was grateful to have the opportunity to do that. I’d be great before I hang it up to get with a really well-established team and have an opportunity to win some more races.”
Sounds a lot like Busch.