- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kurt Busch might be the most misunderstood driver in Nextel Cup.
He's also been one of the most criticized the last couple of years -- having run-ins with several of his fellow competitors, including Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon. But no single incident tops the infamous punch in the face he received from archrival Jimmy Spencer last August at Michigan International Speedway.
None of the image problems are lost on Busch himself. But now in his fourth full season of Cup competition, Busch says he's making a conscious effort to dispel the notion that he's a bad guy or a dirty driver.
"I know that I've done things wrong in the past with just trying to beat the doors off everybody on the racetrack and trying to win and so that was perceived the wrong way," Busch said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. "Now I understand that. It'll take time for things to turn around and for people to not necessarily make the corner, but just to get to know me better.
"It's something to where you feel like you do everything right but you're perceived one way and it's just not understood the proper way. I'm 25 years old in a game where it pays to be a veteran. That could be another side of it, as well."
Busch, who qualified 12th for Sunday's Samsung/Radio Shack 500, is making a concerted effort to be a changed man and driver in 2004. Much of that change simply comes with age and experience.
"With being older and wiser, yet I'm 25 years old and still one of the young guys, it's a challenge to learn everything you can," he said. "And you have to piece things together one race at a time, on the racetrack or off the racetrack. This being my fourth year now, I'm starting to see things a third time around, or a fourth time around, and whether it's a good thing or bad scenario, you just learn from all the things.
"Working with the team and understanding the engineer's aspects and crew chief's calls, when he wants to change things on the car, it's all easier to see now. I give my insight and it's a nice positive flow. Things are fun."
Having won last Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol, Tenn., Busch is now tied with Ryan Newman for the most wins (nine) of any Cup driver since 2002.
"That's pretty neat," he admits. "It's a good success track that I've been on, and there's been a lot I've had to learn because of just being thrown into this so quickly, coming straight out of the Truck series, with no Busch experience and right into Cup.
"Jack (team owner Jack Roush) asked me if I was ready to go Cup racing. I told him, 'Jack, I'm ready if you're ready.' We knew it was going to be a long road to hoe."
Busch's triumph last week at Bristol lifted him into second place, just 21 points behind series-leading Kenseth. He's hoping a strong finish this Sunday might help him overtake Kenseth and put him as the No. 1 driver in Cup for the second time in his career (he was briefly No. 1 after the spring race at Rockingham last year, only to be knocked off that perch the following week at his home track in Las Vegas).
Busch has been chastised and criticized for being everything from overly aggressive to making just plain boneheaded moves on the racetrack. He agrees with some, disagrees with others. And even though he is consciously trying to change the perception, there's still a long ways to go.
Busch has ears, after all, and he could hear the boos interspersed with the cheers as he celebrated in Victory Lane at Bristol.
"It's a thing where if you have success early in your career, people are probably not opting to choose to go with you, or they choose to go against you," Busch said. "I don't know that side of how I can fix that, but I've seen things in the past with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon.
"The best example is my father. I watched him win 15 out of 16 races one year at the local track and everybody hated him. I asked him, 'Dad, what did you do to all these people?' He didn't have a good explanation for me, but over the years I just understood that when you win at one specific track or when you win 15 out of 16 races, when you dominate, maybe (fan hostilities) can be attributed to that. I don't know."
Does it bother him? Yes and no, but he also realizes he has to move on. He knows he's not going to please everyone all the time.
"This series moves so quick," he said. "It's very similar to baseball. If you have one bad game and you end up beaning a guy or you get tossed, you have to let it go and you go into the next game with a fresh outlook. You show up at the next racetrack with a fresh outlook."
If anything, 2004 could be the year he comes into his own, particularly when it comes to chasing after the championship. With teammate Kenseth becoming the first driver to bring home the title to Roush Racing in its 15-year existence, Busch would like nothing better than to keep the championship trophy in the organization this year.
"This team is ready to take that role," he said. "Whether I am, I don't know. It's something where you race each race and where the points tally up, you go. But you do feel differently when you're running well and you're up in the points.
"I do know one thing: As a points leader, his responsibility is to make sure he's up 400 points on the 11th-place guy so there's only 10 of us playing at the end of the year, and hopefully I'm one of those 10."
There's no disputing his talent or his success thus far. In just slightly over three years, Busch has become one of the top guns in the game. Since replacing Chad Little behind the wheel of the No. 97 Ford with seven races left in the 2000 campaign, Busch has tried to meet every challenge, graciously accept the plaudits and deal with the criticism.
He knows he has a long way to achieve the level of acceptance -- and championship-winning success -- that veteran drivers such as Gordon or Bill Elliott have. All the pieces of the puzzle and all the necessary resources are in hand, though, and he fully realizes that, too.
Busch also knows that a certain amount of responsibility comes with success, and that trying to "beat the doors off" every other driver not only isn't going to work anymore but isn't going to help his cause to become accepted better by competitors and fans.
He knows he has to drive smarter and with more forethought, and he has taken steps to meet that challenge. In fact, Busch has such confidence he can indeed do that that he laughs when asked what his biggest challenge really has been this year.
"My marketing team always brings a new car to the racetrack, and I don't know if it's going to have Sharpie on the hood or Irwin on the hood," he said. "It's been tough to keep up with that. That's been the biggest challenge this year."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@msn.com.
Win or lose, Kurt Busch stays upbeat. Maybe that's why the 25-year-old can deal with all the heat.