- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The Kurt Busch who will test his No. 2 Penske Racing South Dodge at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week is a different man than the one who returned home last March as the defending Nextel Cup Series champion.
A lot more than the team for which Busch is driving has changed, too.
A year ago, Busch was with Roush Racing, the team that had brought him to NASCAR. In August, it was announced he was moving to Penske starting in 2007, taking the seat long held by Rusty Wallace. Eventually, though, it was worked out so Busch could join the team this year.
That, in itself, indicated this year would be different. And then came Phoenix. Stopped by sheriff's deputies near the track two days before the race there last November, Busch was charged with reckless driving and reports indicate he didn't cooperate with the officers.
Roush Racing suspended Busch for the year's final two races, leaving him 10th in points.
Now, though, the goal is to repair Busch's image. Busch -- not always a fan favorite to begin with -- was singed by the Phoenix incident, which added more fuel to the fire for some.
Busch, though, considers himself wiser now and is looking forward to a fresh start with his new team.
"I'm a little older now. I aged pretty quick the last two months. I'm a little bit more mature and more aware of what's around me and very fortunate to do the job I do," Busch says. "I took it for granted. With a fresh start with Roger [Penske, the team's owner] and understanding his way of operating as a team, it's going to be all about teamwork, getting the [teams of Busch and Ryan Newman] working together.
"There's so many things for me to absorb. It's going to be a challenge to fit in. I just think I've been too uptight, and I haven't loosened up enough. I get too uptight when 20 [reporters] are standing in front of me with recorders. It's just about loosening up and having more fun with it. It's easier to do when I've got those people behind me."
Time, of course, will be the true indicator of how much Busch has, or hasn't, changed. He says, looking back, that always trying to say the right thing for his sponsors camouflaged his personality while at Roush Racing.
Busch says he's met with legendary promoter and Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler for advice and plans on meeting with Darrell Waltrip for more of the same while in Daytona. Once the sport's "bad boy" early in his career, Waltrip developed into a fan favorite.
Advice has also come from Wallace, the man he's replacing.
"It's a matter of being yourself and doing it the right way," Busch says, when asked about the advice he's received. "You don't need to put a smoke screen up. You take care of a list of things and you just need to know when to do that."
Newman doesn't know Busch all that well just yet, but believes the driver fans may perceive on TV isn't the same person he'll be working with. Through the years, the two have never had any on-track issues to speak of, and after failing to agree on just about everything with Wallace over the years, Newman welcomes a new teammate.
"I think he's got a great attitude. He's a great person," Newman says of Busch. "He's very much like me in that he's sarcastic. Some sarcastic people get it and other people think it's cocky. I think that's part of it. I think we have a lot of things that are similar, and I think we have some personality things that are different. I hope that won't separate our working together in the future."
The goal this year is for the two teams to work together, sharing information that will benefit both drivers. The old-school Wallace and the analytical Newman never could make that work. Not that they actually spent much time trying considering different approaches.
"We're both aggressive in our driving style. We're not aggressive in how we treat people," Newman says. "That's important to me. Kurt is a clean race car driver, and we've never had a run-in on the race track that drew us to a conversation later. We look forward to racing under the same roof for Penske Racing and doing Roger well, and more importantly, doing well for ourselves.
"It's going to be a learning curve for us -- me, [crew chief] Matt Borland, Roy [McCauley, Busch's crew chief] and Kurt, it's going to be a learning experience. Kurt has got more experience than anybody as far as sharing information as far as an individual for one team. I don't, so it's going to be difficult for me, maybe. Maybe it'll be easy, but I see it as something I'll have to adapt to. I think it's something that will strengthen Penske Racing, and that's all you can ask for, I guess."
Busch has talked with Newman and is confident whatever issues kept Newman and Wallace apart won't be a concern this season.
What will be a concern for Busch is getting used to the feel of the Dodge Charger, a car that wasn't the most competitive last season. In fact, the team will test both a Charger and a 2004 Intrepid at Las Vegas in an attempt to figure out which car is best when they race there in March.
"I've felt bigger differences sometimes with [the] chassis than with the bodies so far," Busch says of his first forays testing the Dodge. "It'll be a learning process for me.
"The Dodge is a different animal than the Ford. Right now, the real test I had with it was at Atlanta at the tire test, and the thing was just beyond loose. It may have been our setup. It may have been we tried some things that didn't quite match the new tires. We'll balance that out over time. It's going to be a challenge to get up to speed with the Dodge."
That's just one of many challenges facing Busch as he makes a fresh start in NASCAR.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com
With an ugly team split and a scrape with the law behind him, Kurt Busch is looking forward to '06, writes Mark Ashenfelter.