NEW YORK - It took two quiet weekends out of a race car for Kurt Busch to realize he needed an attitude adjustment.
Now that he's accepted it, NASCAR's most polarizing driver has an even bigger challenge ahead of him: Convincing people he can change.
Busch was a full participant in Thursday's season-ending activities, dismissing all speculation that he would be excluded from NASCAR's festivities following the controversial close to his championship reign. He was suspended by his former team for the final two races of the year after a run-in with Phoenix police.
Although he was only charged with reckless driving - reports that he was drunk were proven false when police said his blood alcohol limit was well below the legal limit - Busch was lambasted for his belligerent attitude toward the officers.
It cost him his reputation and much of the respect he had been working hard to earn across the garage.
Clearly contrite, Busch says he's eager to move on.
"Everybody has a circumstance that comes up in life where you want to press the reset button and this is one of those," he said. "What has to happen is the real me has to come out. The fans have to get to know the real Kurt Busch better.
"I think you will see a difference, it's just going to take time, like everything does."
Busch undoubtedly has a lot of work to do in repairing his image.
A talented driver with 14 victories and one Nextel Cup championship, Busch has struggled to make many friends or fans during his five seasons. He's viewed as cocky and arrogant, and disrespectful of the veterans who helped build the sport. He was once even punched in the nose by Jimmy Spencer, then was booed by fans a week later while Spencer was celebrated.
He then made enemies with his employers by announcing midseason that he wanted to leave Roush Racing to drive for Roger Penske. The contract he signed was for 2007, but Busch made it clear he wanted out a year earlier.
Jack Roush was furious - he discovered Busch, after all, and gave him his big break - and the relationship between the two deteriorated to the point where they weren't even speaking over the final month of the season.
So when Busch was stopped by police on the Friday night before the Nov. 13 race in Phoenix, it gave Roush the opportunity to have the last laugh. He kicked Busch out of his car and used every chance he had to rip the driver publicly.
"He's an extraordinary talent, but he's really had trouble dealing with the realities of normal social behavior," Roush said in one of his many criticisms.
Busch chose to take the high road Thursday when asked about Roush, and indicated he would reflect upon his accomplishments with the team in his Friday night speech.
"I think we've had a great career together," he said. "I'll leave with my head high and pride that I developed in that No. 97."
But he was clear he's ready to start anew at Penske Racing, where he will replace retiring Rusty Wallace. There's a general belief that if anyone can help Busch improve his image it's Penske, a patient owner with a knack for calming unruly drivers.
"Roger feels as though he can help Kurt Busch off the race track with the media and the public perception," Wallace said. "He's confident that he can talk to him and help him smooth some of those things out. I feel like if there's anybody who can do it, it's Roger."
Wallace is also one of the many drivers suddenly showing support for Busch. Roush teammate Greg Biffle has been vocal in his belief that Busch was treated unfairly in the fallout of the Phoenix arrest, as has new series champion Tony Stewart, who pulled him aside to offer advice.
Now Wallace, who has turned the keys to his famed No. 2 Dodge over to Busch, has extended his own offer of help to Busch.
"I don't think Kurt Busch has got as many problems as people think he's got," Wallace said. "I think that stuff is way overblown. He's just a hard-core driver that does things in a different way.
"We've just got to get him to do things in a more acceptable way and if I can help him, I will."
This humbled version of Busch will likely take him up on his offer.
"Once we get through all this, it's going to be a lesson learned for me," he said. "It will be great to turn over a new leaf next season."
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