NASCAR driver Kyle Busch has built his career on being arrogant, daring and brash while racing the heck out of a stock car. Fans don’t call him “Rowdy” and boo him at pre-race driver introductions for nothing.
Reporting from Avondale, Ariz. -- But on Friday, at least, a different Busch met the media for the first time since NASCAR, his Joe Gibbs Racing team, and his main sponsor, M&M’s, lowered the boom on the driver for intentionally wrecking a rival a week ago.
This Busch was contrite, subdued and respectful as he sat next to Gibbs, the NFL Hall of Fame coach, at Phoenix International Raceway. “I’m utmost apologetic,” Busch said.
Busch, 26, also acknowledged that he briefly feared for his job at Gibbs but that Gibbs stood by him.
“Was there a point in which I thought, ‘Do I have a ride?’ Of course there was,” Busch said. “Was there a point in which Joe ever told me that, ‘Hey, we’re looking at terminating this?’ No.”
The question now is whether Busch’s ordeal will change the aggressive way he drives, starting with Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, the next-to-last race of NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff.
Despite having a legion of NASCAR fans who don’t like his attitude, Busch, with his 23 career Cup victories, is considered an accomplished racer by most.
“He is extremely talented, and he’s entertaining,” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. “It would be a huge loss to the sport if Kyle Busch is not out there.”
Busch said his competitiveness would not suffer from his penalties and that the matter was “more behavioral issues” than “competitive issues.”
The issue that ignited the furor occurred when Busch retaliated against Ron Hornaday Jr. in a NASCAR truck race at Texas Motor Speedway. After the two had bumped earlier in the race, Busch shoved Hornaday’s truck hard into the wall during a caution period while they were still at high speed.
Busch’s punishment was swift. NASCAR took the rare step of forbidding him to drive that weekend in the Cup and Nationwide Series races, fined him $50,000 and warned he would be indefinitely suspended if he was overly aggressive again in the last two races of the season.
Then on Thursday, sponsor M&M’s dropped Busch for those two races — at Phoenix and next weekend at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway — due to Busch’s “unacceptable” actions. That forced the Gibbs team to use another sponsor, Interstate Batteries, for the main paint scheme of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota.
In the end, though, Gibbs said the penalties could help Busch, who had shown some signs of maturing this season.
“I want to support Kyle, and I feel like this could have a positive impact,” Gibbs said. “I’m committed to him as a person.”