CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kurt Busch and Penske Racing parted ways Monday after six bumpy seasons, a split that clouds the former champion’s future in NASCAR as he embarks on a personal journey to reclaim his passion for racing.
Both the team and driver said ending the relationship was a “mutual agreement,” but most believe Busch was fired in the fallout of yet another embarrassing incident. A fan caught Busch on video verbally abusing an ESPN reporter during last month’s season finale, and Busch was fined $50,000 by NASCAR after the clip was posted on YouTube.
Busch, though, was insistent that leaving Penske is probably the best thing for him.
“What’s troublesome is this five-letter ‘f-i-r-e-d’ word is being used, but it’s obvious to me that looking back, I was very unhappy over the second half of the season,” Busch said. “I need to put the fun back into racing for me. I want to be a better driver and a better person. Today is the day that begins. I take a deep breath, I smile, and I move forward from here.”
Busch admitted last week during activities surrounding the season-ending awards ceremony that he began seeing a sports psychologist about two months ago to address what he referred to as “personal issues.”
The 2011 season was particularly brutal for Busch, who is known for his intensity and notorious meltdowns during in-race communications with his team.
Though he won two races and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, a tantrum over his in-car radio at Richmond in May set the tone for the season. He feuded with rival Jimmie Johnson and openly struggled with an ability to keep their competition in perspective.
Busch had at least three public flare-ups with media members, Steve Addington became his second crew chief to quit in three years, and he was overshadowed on and off the track by teammate Brad Keselowski. He also became publicly annoyed over interest in his ongoing divorce and new relationship with Patricia Driscoll, the head of the Armed Forces Foundation charity.
His behavior wore thin on the buttoned-up Penske organization, which signed Busch away from Roush Fenway Racing a year afterhis 2004 Cup title.
Busch said that after reflecting during the Thanksgiving break, he came to realize he maybe just isn’t Penske material.
Bud Denker, the senior vice president for Penske Corp., seemed puzzled by Busch’s assessment.
“I never saw him as a bad fit, so those are his thoughts,” Denker said.