Busch learns lessons in spotlight

Updated: August 4, 2004, 3:46 PM ET
By Mike Massaro | ESPN

Less than an hour before the Chicago Cubs squared off against the Houston Astros last month, Kurt Busch casually sat in the home field dugout. With one cheek inflated with a mouthful of sunflower seeds he pointed to a newly installed computerized scoreboard above the centerfield bleachers, and with true traditionalist conviction bluntly said, "that doesn't belong here."

Busch, a lifelong Cubs fan, recalled the seats where he sat when he first visited Wrigley Field. He exchanged pleasantries with Cubs pitcher Mark Prior. And showing he was a true fan, waxed nostalgic remembering watching Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliff play.

Busch joins a long list of celebrities who pay allegiance to the Cubs. Like most north side loyalists, he's typical in almost every regard. With one glaring exception, he won't pile the blame of last year's playoff loss to the Florida Marlins on Steve Bartman.

Bartman, as you'll recall, was the fan that interfered with a pop fly foul ball, robbing Moises Alou of a chance of making the catch for the second out of the eighth inning. With new life the Marlins overcame a 3-0 deficit in the final two innings and went on to win the game and the series, preventing the Cubs from making their first World Series appearance since 1945. Bartman is now hated by Cubs fans worldwide.

To a degree, Busch sympathizes with Bartman. Maybe it's because he doesn't believe in curses. Perhaps it's because he thinks one play didn't decide the series and the Cubs should have been able to recover. Or possibly it's because Busch knows what it's like to be vilified.

Last season NASCAR fans turned on Busch after a midseason incident involving him and Jimmy Spencer. Following a race in Michigan, Spencer reached into Busch's car and punched him. Later it was revealed that Busch had intentionally tried to gouge Spencer's tire with his fender during the race.

Busch was unapologetic, claiming it was a fair racing tactic. The fans however, didn't agree. On a grand scale Busch was perceived as a brash young driver with an ego problem. The following week in Bristol, while Spencer served a one-race suspension, Busch won the race, but was booed vehemently in victory lane.

Busch held his hands high above his head in triumph, sprayed champagne and smiled for pictures but it was easy to tell he wasn't truly celebrating. Afterward, during post-race interviews there was hardly a trace of arrogance, in fact he was more humble than ever. That night has forever changed Busch's career.

Turn the clock ahead almost a full year and there's a new Kurt Busch walking the garage. One that is still confident but not cocky.

"You have to take each of your pitfalls and each of your mistakes in stride and continue to develop and mature," says Busch.

For Busch though, the maturation process has been accelerated. Unlike most Nextel Cup drivers he started racing relatively late in life. He first dawned a helmet at age 15, driving dwarf cars in Nevada. By the time he was 21 he had reached NASCAR's highest level. That's like going from T-ball to the Major Leagues in just six years. While his meteoric ascension has had tremendous upside it has also come with a price.

"Each time that I make a mistake, I wish I knew something more about a decision that I made, I wish I had more time," Busch admits.

The learning curve has indeed been steep and unforgiving. At the beginning of 1999 Busch jumped from NASCAR's Southwest Series to the Craftsman Truck Series, then leapfrogged the Busch Series and was racing part time in the Cup Series by the end of 2000. He essentially went from a fishbowl to the Superbowl in a matter of 18 months. Suddenly Busch was forced to deal with money, pressure, media and sponsor responsibilities. Unlike most drivers though, he had to learn these lessons while being under the spotlight.

"I think that Kurt has had to grow up in front of a lot of people," says Roush Racing teammate Jeff Burton. "And Kurt made a lot of mistakes in that growing up process. He did things yesterday that he'll look back on four or five years from now and say, 'Man I can't believe I did that.'"

For Busch, the point of reflection has already arrived.

"I've gone so quickly from one series to the next and not had a chance to see things," Busc says. "You learn the whole PR side of it and then you learn the mechanical side of it. Not necessarily in that order. It still continues each day. I don't know what I'm gonna learn because I don't know that much yet."

While Busch's personality is noticeably different this season his driving style hasn't changed. He's notched two victories and stands seventh in points. With just six races before the Chase for the Championship begins his team appears to be peaking.

"We've got a great opportunity to be able to win races and be able to jump on the final (six) races or so to make sure that we're in the top 10," says Busch. "We're geared up. We're gassed up, everybody's excited about the opportunity."

This week Busch will celebrate his 26th birthday, but it's safe to say he's gained more than a year's maturity in the past 12 months. For that he has plenty to be thankful for. He also got a pretty good gift; Nomar Garciaparra, all wrapped up in a brand new Cubs uniform.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.

Mike Massaro, host of ESPN2's daily NASCAR news and information program NASCAR Now, and a pit reporter for NASCAR race telecasts, has been with ESPN since 2001. An award-winning reporter for NASCAR and other sports for SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, ESPNEWS, ESPN Radio and other multi-platform programming, Massaro previously served as a reporter for ESPN's motorsports news program RPM2Night.