It was Tuesday night of this week, I was on the road for work. To kill time while sitting at the bar waiting on dinner, I was in my phone, flicking and clicking my way through all of the posts and stories speculating that Kurt Busch would announce his retirement as a NASCAR Cup Series race. On Saturday morning at his hometown racetrack of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he announced that he would be stepping away from full-time racing.
The gentleman sitting next to me was totally reading it all over my shoulder and finally tapped that shoulder, followed by a trio of questions.
“Hey man, how many Cup races has Kurt Busch won?”
I replied quickly, “34.”
“Hey man, how many of those do you think you were there for in person?”
I replied just as quickly, “Probably 25 of them.”
“Hey man, for real, what do you think happened more often, you seeing Kurt Busch win a race or him cussing you out to your face?”
OK, this one I had to think about. For a long while. It has been days now since I was asked the question and I still don’t know the answer. And that’s really all you need to know about the complicated, door-to-door dual of the fates that is the Kurt Busch legacy.
The winner versus the jerk.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Busch made his living in NASCAR’s premier series. He has indeed won 34 races, ranked 25th on the all-time victories list, just ahead of NASCAR Hall of Fame members Fireball Roberts and Dale Jarrett. In his trophy case are victories in the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Among his non-points-paying triumphs are one each in the NASCAR All-Star Race, Bud Shootout and even an IROC championship. His 28 poles rank 28th all time. His 10,292 laps led rank 21st. His 339 top 10s rank 15th. Busch has won in all three national series, and he has won at least one race for all three current manufacturers — Ford, Chevy and Toyota — and he won 10 races in long-departed Dodge. He won races driving cars owned by Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Tony Stewart, Chip Ganassi and even Michael Jordan.
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) October 15, 2022
Busch survived the single most nail-biting moments ever seen in a NASCAR championship season finale. In 2004, the first iteration of the Chase/Playoff era, he coolly shed a snapped-off right front tire and narrowly missed the water barrels at the end of the Homestead-Miami Speedway pit wall. He ended the race as the champion. He battled with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. He banged doors with Ricky Craven at Darlington in perhaps NASCAR’s most thrilling finish of this century. He owned Bristol Motor Speedway. Just five months ago he won at Kansas Speedway, earning his 34th win at age 43. Heck, he has gone NHRA Pro Stock racing and won 2014 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.
But every year and seemingly every great moment of Busch’s inevitably first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame career has always been dogged by a “yeah, but …”
He exploded onto the Cup Series scene. Yeah, but the remarkable early success in 2003-04 that led to that Cup title is remembered by many more for his ongoing feud with Jimmy “Mr. Excitement” Spencer as it is for his seven wins over two years.
He won his Cup title with Roush Racing. Yeah, but his exit from the team became testy when Roush felt as though Busch hadn’t given him fair warning about the racer’s departure for Penske Racing, and he missed what would have been his final races with Roush after he was parked by NASCAR for a DUI citation and resulting altercation with police in Phoenix.
He won 10 races for Roger Penske. Yeah, but after he was fined $50,000 for screaming at ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch, The Captain had seen enough and they parted ways.
He landed with Phoenix Racing and embraced the underdog role, even running Ricky Bobby’s “ME” cougar paint scheme at Talladega. Yeah, but he was also placed on probation for an incident with Ryan Newman at Darlington and the following week received a one-race suspension when he responded to a question from reporter Bob Pockrass about his behavior while on probation by saying, “It refrains me from not beating the s— out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions.”
A six-month feud with brother Kyle Busch had to be fixed by Grandma at Thanksgiving. Profanity-laced radio tirades. Having to be pulled off of reporter Joe Menzer at Richmond. Denying he said something on live TV, being shown the transcript of it and then ripping up the papers and dropping them in front Associated Press reporter Jenna Fryer’s face.
We all have those stories. Somewhere in the ESPN video library is a clip of Kurt Busch responding to my question about a crash at Darlington with a question about my relationship with my mother. Marty Smith has a clip of him having to explain why he and Busch had an altercation in the Michigan Speedway media center on YouTube.
We’re all grownups. We can take it. I just never figured out why we had to.
In 2010, I wrote a story for ESPN the Magazine where I sat down the Busch brothers together, following two years of asking. Kurt convinced me that he and his little brother had changed their ways. I believed him. But one year later, I wrote a confession and partial retraction. Kurt wasn’t merely unchanged, he was worse. In 2015, his bizarre relationship with girlfriend Patricia Driscoll led to a high-profile court case and accusation of domestic violence that managed to overshadow that year’s Daytona 500. He was suspended again, this time only two days before the Great American Race. It was embarrassing for the sport, so the suspension stood even after it was determined by investigators not to pursue criminal charges against the racer. When he was allowed back what did he do? He won two races and made the postseason field, despite missing the first three races of the year.
To be clear, he certainly wasn’t alone when it came to tantrums, even those that crossed the line. Tony Stewart was a stick of dynamite, as is Kevin Harvick, and of course, brother Kyle. But those others, even Smoke, their rage came in waves. Kurt Busch was a nonstop tsunami. When it wasn’t, it was a surprise. A pleasant one. Even now, as he has mellowed with age, it still catches one off guard. That’s what has always made it so maddening when he would crack open the windows to show us all he could be a better person. You always knew it was going to be slammed shut.
Perhaps the most insightful conversation I’ve had a with a stock car racer was an interview I did with Busch smack in the middle of those volatile days of the mid-2010s. The story was about the value of the human behind the wheel versus the machine that racer drove. Does the driver still matter in the age of engineering? He was truly brilliant as he explained how he was able to wheel the once-lowly like of Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing into being regular contenders. He said to me: “My road has not been easy. But what it has done is remind me how much fun this can be. And that, in the end, no one is holding that steering wheel in his hands but me.”
That same year I produced a TV series in which modern racers spent time with legends of the past. Busch was on our pilot episode, sitting with Buddy Baker. He was funny, brilliant, respectful and downright likable. I knew then he would be great on television, and when the current networks have put him in the booth, he has been. But the weekend that the show premiered, he unleashed such a vicious, profanity-laced tantrum over the team radio that his then-boss, Roger Penske, waited on him in the garage to pull him into the team hauler and shout him down.
Amazing accomplishment*. Ridiculous talent*. Limitless potential*.
*Yeah, but … *Yeah, but … *Yeah, but …
Him stepping away from full-time racing comes with another asterisk, although one not of his own doing, suffering concussion-like symptoms since a practice crash at Pocono Raceway in late July. But his departure from the garage ignites another question, new but also familiar. Kurt Busch did so much. He will be a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer and if I am fortunate enough to still be a voter when he becomes eligible, I will vote for him immediately. But I also know the question that will be raised in that room. It’s the question that always comes up when his name is mentioned and always will.
What could Kurt Busch have really done if all of that other stuff hadn’t gotten in the way?