Busch must make amends to be great

Updated: April 2, 2004, 10:24 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- On the surface, it's very easy to like Kurt Busch. He's personable, intelligent, eloquent and a hell of a race car driver, to boot.

He almost seems slightly out of place among the good old boys of Nextel Cup. While the majority of them are more likely to be in the blue collar and cold beer crowd, Busch comes across as more of a wine sipping aristocratic type of driver.

Still, there's no denying the immense talent he possesses.

So then, why does it seem so many people hate him? Why has he become the anti-hero of Nextel Cup racing? Why were there so many boos interspersed with the cheers when he won Sunday at Bristol? Why do adjectives such as whiner or smarmy or pesky or spoiled keep popping up whenever Busch's name is mentioned?

In short, why has he become the driver so many fans -- and other drivers, for that matter -- love to hate?

Jimmy Spencer is arguably at the top of the list. He and Busch had words -- not to mention contact -- several times during the 2002 season, most notably at Bristol and Indianapolis. There was more last season, culminating in Spencer hauling off and punching Busch in the face last August at Michigan.

Several drivers applauded Spencer -- some privately, others even going so far as to do it publicly -- like Robby Gordon, who offered to pay the fine imposed upon Spencer by NASCAR's top honchos.

And then, a few weeks later at Bristol, where Busch would go on to win for the third time in four races -- which he improved to four out of the last five this past Sunday -- he was chastised for spinning out fan favorite Sterling Marlin.

Kurt Busch
Getty ImagesBusch needs to mend some fences to really have a Cup title shot.

Regardless of what others think of him, there's no disputing the fact that Busch can wheel a Cup car with the best of them. In fact, the Las Vegas native is tied with Ryan Newman for the most wins of any driver since 2002, both with nine.

You can't ignore that kind of performance by any stretch.

But for as good as he is behind the wheel, Busch still has a bad rep -- and one that needs fixing. And the only one that can do that is Busch himself.

Ever since he replaced Chad Little in the Roush Racing-owned No. 97 Ford in 2000, Busch has taken it on the chin -- both literally and figuratively -- for what some people perceive as being overaggressive, to put it kindly, on the racetrack far too often. And those criticisms seem to be directed at Busch more frequently than at most other competitors.

On the other hand, Busch has all the ingredients to be a Nextel Cup champion -- perhaps even a multiple title winner. But for him to accomplish that goal, he has to realize his bad boy act in his first full three seasons has not exactly made him endearing as, say, a Jeff Gordon or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Further, while Junior's late father made on-track intimidation an art form, Busch's tangles with other drivers have given the impression more of his being a pesky mosquito rather than someone ready to fill Earnhardt's shoes as NASCAR's top intimidator.

Busch's victory at Bristol could very well be the impetus for him to start rebuilding his reputation among his fellow drivers and fans. Whenever you win three races in a row and four of five at a track, that's a significant accomplishment in anyone's record book.

After talking with Busch on Friday in his team hauler after qualifying, it seems clear that Busch is not only sincere about changing, but has also started taking positive steps toward that end, forming a strategy -- much like he does for each racetrack he visits and every race he competes in -- for how to turn his reputation around.

Busch told ESPN.com that yes, he has made mistakes that have caused fellow drivers to take umbrage with his actions, and he understands why they have been upset.

That's why it would be huge for Busch to come out during Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at Texas Motor Speedway and not take the checkered flag, but do it cleanly and with class. And then, perhaps Busch would top it all off with an admission that the old Kurt Busch is gone, replaced by a more mature man and driver.

Even better, he might consider publicly apologizing to some of those drivers he's had past run-ins with, including Spencer, Gordon, Kevin Harvick and others.

There's an old saying in NASCAR that you have to get along to go along. With the kind of talent Busch has, there's no question he can win as a clean driver. Not only would he earn back a great deal of respect from fans and drivers who currently look at him with disdain, it could very well be what he needs to do to win a championship.

Remember, championships aren't just won on the racetrack. They're also won in the pits, the garage and even in a driver's persona.

Who knows, if that happens, maybe the next time Busch and Spencer collide, Jimmy will run over to Busch's car, but instead of cocking his arm back, he'll extend his hand and say, "Hey, no sweat, Kurt. That's racin.'"

And that's the way it should be.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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