Long: Familiar scene has new meaning for Kurt Busch after Richmond victory

7 Comments

RICHMOND, Va. – Confetti flew. Champaign sprayed. Crew members hugged.

The scene rarely deviates during the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. For all the repetitive pictures and interviews, Sunday’s spectacle in Victory Lane at Richmond International Raceway was different. Not for what it was, but what it meant to Kurt Busch.

Shadowed by tabloid headlines and a protective order granted to his ex-girlfriend by a Delaware Family Court Commissioner, Busch missed the first three races after NASCAR suspended him.

But that’s taking a look only at part of the picture.

The former champion won multiple races all but twice from 2002-11 before his career crashed with a series of public outbursts catalogued on YouTube that cost him his ride with car owner Roger Penske. Busch spent most of the 2012 season driving for a team that had limited funds and little chance of winning most races. He became more recognized for his ode to Ricky Bobby and “Talladega Nights’’ than any success on the track.

When car owner Gene Haas abruptly decided to expand to four cars, he plucked Busch from Furniture Row Racing for the 2014 season, accepting the driver’s “Outlaw” image. Haas knew about second chances, having served about 16 months in prison for tax fraud before he was released in May 2009.

In their sixth race together, Busch won. In his sixth race of this season, he won again.

“Redemption story,’’ said Keith Rodden, crew chief for Kasey Kahne, who flashed a thumbs up sign to Busch on pit road as the latter drove toward Victory Lane. Rival team owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson each congratulated Busch after his win.

All that Busch had gone through in his career, all that he has gone through since his ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic abuse – a Delaware Family Court Commissioner concluded that it was “more likely than not” Busch committed the act, but the Delaware Department of Justice declined to press charges –  made Sunday’s win and trip to Victory Lane different.

“I can appreciate it more,’’ Busch said after his 26th career Cup victory, which tied him with NASCAR Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen in all-time series wins.

“As I’m older, I can appreciate it more because of the time and effort that it takes to assemble a good group of guys,” Busch said. “That’s where I recognize what now I might have took for granted when I was racing with Jimmy Fennig in the Roush days, and when we won the championship (in 2004).’’

As for the courtroom drama and suspension, Busch said it wasn’t difficult to separate that from racing because he was “standing on the truth the whole time.’’

What happened off track had an impact. Upon his return to racing last month at Phoenix International Raceway, Busch concedes he drove with “too much of a chip on my shoulder.’’

Even so, his car was fast and he often was in contention. When he was close, though, something happened to snatch victory away. He was headed for the win at Auto Club Speedway last month when a debris caution extended the race. Brad Keselowski passed Busch on the final lap to win. Busch finished third.

With crew chief Tony Gibson sidelined by kidney stone, Busch charged to the lead at Bristol Motor Speedway last week before giving up the spot when he pitted and those behind him didn’t with 34 laps to go. Shuffled back, he couldn’t avoid an accident, and he placed 15th.

While he led 127 of the last 128 laps Sunday, nothing out of the ordinary happened at Richmond to send Busch home wondering what he could do to win.

“After the race last week, I felt like, you know, just settle down, get into the groove where you let the race come to you and let the talent of the crew members come into play, and that way we all carry the same weight,’’ Busch said. “I think I was just trying to carry too much weight.’’

That’s another reason why this win is different from the Martinsville victory a year ago. Then, he had a new team and was with Daniel Knost, who was in his first year as a crew chief.

“I felt the responsibility of being a mentor,’’ said Busch, who was visited by Knost in Victory Lane. “This year I feel the responsibility of being the driver and doing my duty because I know I’ve got the best guy on the box with Tony Gibson, the best lead engineer with Johnny Klausmeier, the best car chief, best front‑end guy, rear‑end guy, tire guy.

“Everybody on our team is at a top level so I don’t have to do anything other than drive, and that’s what Gene Haas wants me to do and he’s not happy with one win. He wants multiple wins.’’

For all that he’s gone though, Sunday’s race also gave Busch something else.

“The chip on my shoulder,’’ he said, “will now be a trophy that I get to carry out of here.’’