Imagine this: you’re on your way home from the doctor, and you stop by the local pharmacy to pick up your prescription. You step up to the counter when a man steps out from the back with spiked short hair, a rounded grin and a slight gleam of mischief in his eye. Meet Kurt Busch- a man who ,if not for NASCAR, would have become a pharmacist.
So much for the redneck image of NASCAR. Some march to the beat of a different drum. At times, it seems as though Kurt is in step with a tuba. While most NASCAR drivers are motor heads off the track, Kurt is more at home with water skis, snow skis and jet skis, a product of his western surroundings.
The Las Vegas native has a lot of NASCAR mileage for a guy who just turned 30 last August 4th. The former champion broke into Sprint Cup racing back in 2000 at the age of 22, and for quite some time was the cicruit’s youngest driver as recently as 2004- younger than more recent additions such as Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle.
Though he’s a slightly unconventional sort by his sport’s standards, Kurt Thomas Busch has racing in his veins. These days, Kurt is better known for being Kyle’s older brother and his dad Tom was also a stock car driver. Kurt cut his racing teeth on go kart tracks around Las Vegas and broke into dwarf car racing at the age of 14 at Pahrump Valley Speedway near his hometown. Busch came up to speed quickly- winning Nevada State Dwarf Car Rookie Of The Year Honors in 1994, and grabbing a championship in 1995.
Busch moved on to Legend Cars in 1996 and got the knack of it quickly enough to again win Rookie Of The Year honors in that class in 1996. That same year, Busch was a Hobby Stock Champion at Las Vegas Speedway.
By early 1998, Busch was competing in the Winter Heat competition in Tuscon, Arizona. There- young Busch took on the likes of Kevin Harvick, Ron Hornaday, Matt Crafton, and future teammate Greg Biffle among others. Busch got his big break in the wake of the tragic shooting of Chris Trickle. Busch took over Trickle’s ride in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest and captured yet another Rookie Of The Year Award, following that success up with a championship in 1999, driving for Craig Keough. At 21, Kurt set a record for becoming the youngest champion.
Busch hit the big time when he came out on top of a “Gong Show” audition for a truck ride with Jack Roush in 2000. His driving earned Busch a ride in the Craftsman Truck Series. Success continued to follow as Kurt picked up 4 wins en route to a 2nd place finish in the points- behind Greg Biffle.
Roush couldn’t resist getting Busch a Cup ride and the owner made a controversial move to give Kurt a Cup ride in late 2000, passing the more experienced Biffle and entirely skipping the Busch Grand National Series. He debuted at Dover in the #97 Rubbermaid Ford, finishing 8th at the September 24th race. Busch would be guided by the steady hand of crew chief Jeff Hammond, who once worked as pit boss for the legendary Darrell Waltrip.
2001 provided few fireworks for Busch as he went winless in his rookie season with 3 top 5s and 6 top 10s and 7 DNFs. In his first Daytona start, Busch recalls making contact with Dale Earnhardt in his final race and remembers “The Initimidator” sticking his hand out the window at him. He was edged out by Kevin Harvick, who took over the late Earnhardt’s ride at Richard Childress Racing, in the Rookei Of The Year standings.
Kurt has long been known for his expertise on short tracks with 4 victories at Bristol and wins at Martinsville, Richmond and Phoenix. In fact, Busch’s first victory came March 24, 2002 at Bristol in his 48th career start.
2002 proved a breakout year. Busch won 4 races overall, including 3 out of the last 5. Kurt finished 3rd in the points the same year Tony Stewart won his first Cup title.
Busch’s 2003 season brought 4 more wins, but this season will be best remembered as the year his rivalry with Jimmy Spencer was born. “Mr. Excitement” took exception to the chrome horn treatment he was getting from the young upstart and Spencer reached through Busch’s window net and punched Busch in the nose.
Busch admits to trying to emulate Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s “take no prisoners” style on the track, but acknowledges this approach did not serve him well as there’s only one “Ironhead.” During the course of his career, Kurt’s traded paint and smack with Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Kevin Harvick among others. In fact, a GQ magazine poll rated Busch the 3rd “most hated athlete in America” behind Barry Bonds and Terrell Owens.
In spite of the wins, Busch finished 11th in the points in 2003 as Matt Kenseth captured the Sprint Cup title with just one win. 2004 brought change to NASCAR as Brian France and company insituted “The Chase”- NASCAR’s answer for a playoff system. The change suited Kurt as he racked up 3 wins, 25 top 10s and 12 top 5s- edging out Jeff Gordon for the prestigious Cup crown.
While you’d think a championship would earn you more fans, it earned Busch more controversy. Chase critics are quick to point out that the resetting of points at the beginning of the chase favored Busch over Gordon, and that under the old system, the “Rainbow Warrior” would have won his 5th title. Gordon had 5 wins in the 2004, to go with 16 top 5s, and 25 top 10s.
While 2005 brought more success on the track, Kurt Busch would be embroiled in controversy off of it. Kurt announced he would be leaving Jack Roush Racing to take over the #2 Dodge at Penske South- the “Blue Duece” piloted by 1989 champion Rusty Wallace. Busch won 3 races at Phoenix, Pocono and Richmond in his swan song for the #97. After the November 11th race, Busch made more unwanted headlines when he was pulled over for reckless driving. Kurt was wrongfully accused of drunk driving and was suspended and replaced by Rusty’s younger brother Kenny.
2006 brought a fresh start for Penske’s latest addition. On March 27th, Busch married longtime girlfriend Eva Bryan. The model earned a reputation for being a bit spunky herself, getting entangled in a shouting match in an incident with Nicole Lunders, girlfriend, and later wife of Greg Biffle. Kurt garnered only one win and a 16th place finish in the point in his first season at Penske.
With a pair of mid-season wins and a place in the Chase for the first time since 2005, 2007 proved a more productive campaign for Busch. Kurt was especially strong down the stretch, and he placed 7th in the final points.
Busch could not stay away from making headlines- tangling once again with another one of NASCAR’s more popular drivers. At the Dover race in June, the driver of the Miller Lite Dodge got into it with Tony Stewart. The two traded paint out on the track and Busch got a little aggressive coming down hard on pit road and nearly hitting a member of Smoke’s crew. Busch’s gestures and histrionics got him a fine and and probation.
The rivalry would renew at Daytona in 2008. The pair got tangled up again during practic. Yes, I said practice. Stewart got into the back end of Busch’s car, sending Kurt into the wall. The #2 retaliated by ramming Stewart three times. Later Smoke would attempt to block Busch’s entry into the garage. The two were called into the NASCAR hauler, and it is alleged Kurt got punched by the 2-time champ during the altercation. Busch and Stewart were placed on probation and were warned to stay far away from each other and the veteran drivers complied.
That’s really about as exciting as the season would get for Kurt Busch. He did place second behind teammate Ryan Newman at Daytona, but like just about every other Dodge team in NASCAR, Penske limped through the recently completed campaign. Busch did pick up a single win at New Hampshire and put in some solid finishes at the end of the chase. Busch placed 18th in the final points.
Going into 2009, Busch will be the leader at Penske. Ryan Newman has left the team to join Tony Stewart on his newly formed team and Busch will be joined by David Stremme, a driver with Nationwide series success trying to revive his Cup career.
The years are being kinder to Busch and his image. Kurt’s younger brother Kyle seems to get more notoriety these days for stirring things. The elder Busch seems to want to genuinely re-invent himself as the more genial sort that he truly seems to be. Kurt has done a tireless amount of charity work and has become one of the more accessible drivers in the garage.
No doubt, the 2004 champ and winner of some 18 races will go down in history as one of the more colorful characters this decade in NASCAR has ever seen. In an era where traditional fans are clamoring for less political correctness, you have to think at some point the “Blue Duece” will win over more fans.