My Brain on NASCAR: Opportunity knocks louder for winners

In the world of stock car racing, at what point does talent trump trouble, or vice versa?

Two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) drivers in particular have made major headlines over the past several months, in ways that were far from positive. The first and probably the most high-profile is Kurt Busch.

It is difficult to write a brief bio on Busch, because he has accomplished a great deal in a short time. He began racing fulltime in the Cup Series in 2001, winning four races in 2002 and another four in 2003. In 2004, he became the first driver in history to win the championship under the newly-implemented Chase for the Sprint Cup format. At the awards banquet in New York City, Busch’s mentor and teammate Mark Martin referred to him as “the most talented young race car driver I have ever seen.” That’s pretty high praise.

Busch’s career has mostly been characterized by controversy. Roush Fenway fired him in 2005 after he was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving by an Arizona deputy; he was subsequently cited for reckless driving. He then moved to Penske Racing, where his notoriously short temper and tendency to have a vulgar mouth were showcased time and again on national television. At the end of the 2011 season he was “released” from his Penske contract.

This year, he has been the driver for underfunded Phoenix Racing. The season has been fraught with on-track incidents and continued verbal outbursts, including a suspension for swearing publicly. But despite many people believing it could never happen again, a viable team has given Kurt a job. Next week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he will move to Furniture Row Racing, replacing driver Regan Smith.

“Furniture Row Racing has the commitment, talent and resources to compete at a high level in the Sprint Cup Series,” Busch said after the announcement on Sept. 24. “I have watched with admiration how this team has grown over the years and that is why I am excited about the opportunity as I eagerly look forward to a new chapter in my racing career.”

This is an opinion column, so here’s my opinion. During my years at Darlington Raceway, I dealt with Busch many times. Thanks to that door-banging battle with Ricky Craven in 2003, he is probably the most famous race loser in NASCAR history, and we promoted that fact. Kurt was never anything but gracious, accommodating and – a description you don’t often hear applied to him – a really good sport. He may have issues – who doesn’t? – but he’s not a bad guy.

The fact that we almost expect to hear reports of various drug scandals in other professional sports, but are shocked when it happens in stock car racing, is both a compliment to NASCAR and a sorry state of affairs.

Allmendinger’s NASCAR career path has been similar to Busch’s, although not nearly as successful or flamboyant. Like Kurt, AJ started out in the Truck Series before moving to a fulltime Cup Series job with Red Bull Racing in 2007 and then spending a couple of seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports. After Busch and Penske Racing parted company, Allmendinger was hired as the driver of the No. 22 Dodge, which he described as his “dream job.”

The dream ended in July, when Allmendinger was indefinitely suspended from NASCAR after testing positive for a banned substance, and then was released from his Penske contract a week later. He has since completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and his driving privileges have been reinstated. To date no announcement has been made about his future prospects, but it is interesting to note that his name has come up as one of the possible candidates for the Phoenix Racing seat after Busch’s departure.

Allmendinger, who is 30, has zero Cup Series wins on his resume so far. Kurt Busch is 34 years old and has won 24 NSCS races and a championship. One’s name has been tainted by a drug scandal, while the other is well-known for emotional volatility.

The multimillion-dollar question on the table is this: If you’re a big business looking for a driver to sponsor, who would you choose? How much would the potential for success override your concerns and affect your decision?

It remains to be seen whether this Furniture Row deal will be a “three strikes and you’re out” situation or a “third time’s the charm” turnaround. The point is that someone was willing to give Kurt Busch another chance.

Will the same apply to AJ Allmendinger? I hope so, but I’m really not sure.

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