Only the powers-that-be at NASCAR know for certain, but had Kurt Busch's tirade at Dover International Speedway been an isolated incident, he would probably be driving this weekend at Pocono Raceway. Taken by itself, it was just another example of a professional athlete blowing up at a reporter, the kind of thing that happens with much more frequency that people realize. While that doesn't excuse the behavior -- certainly not in NASCAR, a sport that prides itself on accessibility, and where the presence of sponsors demands a certain level of decorum -- in the grand scheme, the outburst hardly seemed like a capital offense.
But there are always external factors at work, and certainly so in this case. The television cameras were rolling, and Speed Channel was able to quickly disseminate video of Busch's comments to the world in all their arrogant glory. And then there was the not-so-small fact that Busch was already on probation, a detail that gave NASCAR enough latitude to suspend the temperamental driver for 10 days, and force car owner James Finch to turn his No. 51 Chevy over to another driver, David Reutimann, this weekend.
The lasting lesson from this messy affair isn't that Busch can be difficult -- any reporter who's dealt with him for any length of time knows that much, as evidenced by some incidents that ended up on television and others that didn't. This is also no place for some kind of treatise on the power of the media, which on balance treats NASCAR competitors very fairly, usually receives the same courtesy in return, and would much rather report stories than become part of them. No, the real takeaway from all this is in NASCAR's reaction, and a rare and somewhat shocking suspension that should make everyone in the garage area acutely aware that probation matters.
Yes, probation. Sometimes in the past it's merited an eye roll, sometimes it's seemed like a method of punishment that doesn't really punish at all, but in the aftermath of Busch's latest convulsion of anger, it's pretty clear that probation can have teeth. The saga that ends with Busch being pulled from the No. 51 car for Pocono didn't begin with vitriolic comments at Dover, but three weeks earlier at Darlington Raceway, where Busch banged into Ryan Newman on pit road (accidentally, he claimed) after the event and incited a near-rumble between the two crews. For his part in that melee, Busch was fined $50,000 and placed on probation through July 25. It's not difficult to connect the dots from one event to the other, and see the dustup at Darlington having a direct impact on NASCAR's reaction to Busch's comments at Dover.
"I think if you just take that incident in itself, that was not for air on TV, that was not for anything else, and the way it came across -- I'm not sure that one incident is suspension-worthy. I think it was because he was on probation," said former driver Kyle Petty, now an analyst for TNT, which Sunday at Pocono begins a six-week stretch of televising Sprint Cup events.
"Now, having said that, I applaud NASCAR for finally having somebody on probation and when they do something that NASCAR thinks is wrong in NASCAR's opinion -- maybe not in everybody else's, but in NASCAR's opinion -- that they finally do something when somebody is on probation. How many times do we see somebody be on probation and they just extend the probation, they don't do anything about it? So NASCAR finally took a stronger stance from that perspective. But I think when you're on probation, probation means something. In the real world when you're on probation, they put you back in the jail house when things go wrong, they don't just extend your probation. So I think from my perspective on that, I do applaud NASCAR for that, but I'm not sure if this was a standalone event that it's worthy of suspension. But with everything else that's gone on over the past, I think they do take that into account."
No matter -- it wasn't a standalone event, but the culmination of a series of incidents, one building upon another. The entire episode hinges on probation, really, given that the question that set Busch off was a rather innocuous query about close racing with Justin Allgaier at Dover with the specter of probation looming over his head. Petty said probation can have an effect on the race track, but only on the driver who's directly dealing with it. To everyone else in the field, it's forgotten as soon as the engines fire.
"Drivers think that every driver that's driving against them says, 'Well, I can take a cheap shot, I can do this, I can do that, because that guy is on probation and he can't retaliate or he can't do anything about it,'" Petty said. "And I talked to a couple different other drivers. I don't think it ever crossed my mind in all the years that I stepped behind the wheel, when you come up to pass somebody or you're racing somebody, you're thinking that guy is on probation. I don't think about that. That's something I read in the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday. That's not something that ever crosses my mind on Sunday. I think if you're the driver that's on probation, then yeah, it may make you not be as aggressive. It may make you not take a chance. It may make you think about something before you do it. But in the big picture, I think probation only affects the driver that's on probation, I don't think it affects the rest of the field."
But it clearly affects NASCAR's judgment. Recent events have made it quite obvious that past actions can play a role when a driver runs afoul of the sanctioning body. Kyle Busch wasn't on probation when he wrecked Ron Hornaday intentionally under caution in a Camping World Truck race at Texas last fall, but his history assuredly played a part in NASCAR's decision to park him for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events that same weekend. Kevin Harvick was on probation stemming from a confrontation with Greg Biffle at Bristol when he was parked for a 2002 Cup race at Martinsville after driving too aggressively in a Truck Series event the day before.
And then there's Kurt Busch, who wasn't just on probation for the Darlington incident, but had also been fined $50,000 for an obscene tirade against a television reporter following last season's finale at Homestead -- which came two weeks before his split with Penske Racing, a divorce that forced him into his current underfunded ride. That's three run-ins with NASCAR law in the past 14 points races, a substantial rap sheet by any estimation. Viewed in that light, maybe the suspension wasn't so surprising after all.
"This isn't just about what happened at Dover on Saturday," said former Cup crew chief Larry McReynolds, a Speed Channel analyst who is also part of the TNT broadcast crew. "This is Homestead. This is Darlington. This is Dover. These are all the things that NASCAR had to take a big-picture look at, and I think that's the reason the suspension was handed down."
So no, this isn't about one ill-timed blowup in front of the television cameras, which Busch apologized for in a statement released shortly after his penalty was issued Monday. This isn't about how the media should be treated, or how drivers should behave in interviews -- after all, most of them usually manage just fine. This is about a pattern of behavior, and about how actions have consequences, and about how even lowly little probation can sometimes lead to the harshest punishment of all.