Last year at this time, Kurt Busch was enjoying the sweet taste of victory. This year, he wasn’t even a spectator at the season finale in Homestead where he clinched the 2004 championship. He wasn’t there to pass the torch to this year’s champion Tony Stewart.
After winning his first championship last year, Kurt Busch had hoped he could repair his reputation as a ‘bad boy’, or troublemaker. He was hoping to mend fences with the fans that have religiously booed him for the last two years. Busch had earned a reputation as an arrogant and cocky kid who failed to show his fellow drivers respect. In fact, in 2002, he called Jimmy Spencer, a long time NASCAR veteran, a ‘decrepid old has-been’. He didn’t stop there, he proceeded to refer to Spencer as a ‘never-was’. This came after several on-track incidents between the two drivers. A year later at Michigan, Busch admittedly tried to cut down Spencer’s tire. After the race, Spencer’s fist would get hit by Busch’s face. His reputation among his peers in the garage as well as his reputation among the fans suffered after this incident and he was never really able to build his fan base.
This year Busch started the year off on his best behavior. He represented NASCAR rather well. Things started to fall by the wayside at Darlington when he cursed NASCAR officials. Later in the year, he had reportedly bumped into a member of the media. His relationship with his boss Jack Roush began to deteriorate as he asked to be released for 2006 so he can replace Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing. Frustration began to mount as he got off to a slow start in the chase for the championship. Then came Phoenix. We all know the story behind that. I’m not going to go into detail but it turned out to be an embarrassment for him and his team, so much to the point where Roush Racing suspended Busch for the final two races.
Meanwhile, his ‘bad boy’ counterpart was enjoying the most prosperous time of his career. Tony Stewart, who has also been known to ruffle feathers, seemed to clean up his act and his new attitude may have helped him dominate the mid part of the season en route to his second championship. Stewart won five races in a seven race stretch, a stretch that included a win at the Brickyard (All-State) 400 at Indianapolis, a track he had dreamed of winning at since boyhood. His fence climbing celebration became popular with the fans. As the chase began, everyone knew that Stewart was the man to beat.
Watching Stewart celebrate is similar to watching Brett Favre. They are grown men who turn into kids when they win. They truly have fun. Stewart will enjoy this championship more than his first one in 2002, mainly because of a positive change in his attitude. I just hope one day, Kurt Busch will be able to enjoy his second championship the way that Stewart has enjoyed his.