Boos, fisticuffs part of Busch's education
The young driver has been labeled as cocky and arrogant.
By DICK BRINSTER
Kurt Busch knows a lot about being booed, and his crew chief believes the noise is not necessarily a negative.
"It's been a good learning experience for me to go through," said Busch, one of NASCAR's young stars.
Busch was even heartily booed after winning at Bristol Motor Speedway a year ago. Two weeks earlier, Jimmy Spencer walked up and punched him in the face as Busch sat in his car after a race in Michigan.
Both drivers were punished and Spencer was suspended for a week. Busch was permitted to race despite tapes of radio chatter where he said he intentionally tried to hit Spencer's car.
"He's a cocky, arrogant punk," Kevin Harvick, himself no stranger to contact and controversy, said after finishing second last summer at Bristol. "He just has a really, really bad attitude."
But even he concedes Busch is talented
"He can wheel a race car," Harvick said.
In 2002, Busch won at Bristol after bumping Spencer out of the way. Last August, Busch spun out local favorite Sterling Marlin. The booing was loud and long.
It has continued but seems to be abating in both intensity and longevity. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig says he isn't concerned.
"How many times did they boo Dale Earnhardt? How many times did they boo Jeff Gordon? It's just the fans," Fennig said. "He'll get people back on his side and go from there."
A contrite Busch wound up apologizing for some of his behavior on and off the track.
A year later, he believes he has a better understanding of what happened.
"The bigger picture is what I didn't know when I came to Nextel Cup racing," Busch said. "I just knew about driving cars and going fast."
He has 10 career victories in five years on the world's premier stock car circuit after immense success at the local and regional levels and in the NASCAR truck series.
But the 26-year-old driver from Las Vegas learned early in his racing life that winning doesn't necessarily breed popularity.
"I watched my father win 15 out of 16 races in a late model series one year and he was booed to no end," Busch said.
That recollection and an inner drive helped him absorb the boos that night in Bristol.
"Our sheer determination to get to Victory Lane was enough of an overpowering feeling to not be affected by the boos," he said.
Busch sees this as the year to move forward in both character and competition. He thinks the fans have become more appreciative of his efforts.
He has two victories in 2004 and is seventh in the standings as the series moves to Michigan for Sunday's GFS Marketplace 400. Busch will have a chance to win the season-ending Nextel Cup tournament -- a 10-race championship competition among the top 10 drivers.
That's exactly where his crew chief thinks Busch belongs.
"He's matured now," Fennig said. "He's just like Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin."
Fennig was Martin's crew chief for five years, including 1998, when Martin won a career-best seven races.
With the level of competition constantly growing with an influx of so many talented young drivers, it might be difficult for Busch to win quite so often. But Fennig thinks his driver has unlimited potential.
"He's got so much talent," Fennig said. "Now he's applying it more. He's a little more patient now than he was in the beginning."
Car owner Jack Roush also has noticed the improvement in Busch this year. Roush said it was important for Busch to find a level of contentment that would permit him to move forward.
The Busch he hired was always looking for an immediate remedy whenever things didn't go well with the car. But Roush doesn't think that's such a bad trait in a young driver.
"That's something you can work with," the car owner said. "A lot of times drivers need to be encouraged to realize their potential. Kurt was outside of his box all the time."
Still, Roush recognized the need for Busch to settle down and has been impressed with the adjustment. He said Busch sat down after last season's unpleasantness and carefully considered everything that happened
"He's come back more mature and more able to deal with horrible frustrations that were just driving him crazy," Roush said.
Success might have played a role in that frustration, Roush believes. He's never seen a driver win so often at such a young age.
Anything less left Busch dissatisfied.
He also would list uncertainty as a motivating factor in his development.
"I raced every series like it was going to be the last opportunity I had because it all seemed surreal," Busch said. "It seemed like I could never go further than the local level because that's all my father was able to do."
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