What Martinsville Sprint Cup Win Means for NASCAR's Outlaw, Kurt Busch

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

USA Today

There's a definite irony in Kurt Busch's win in Sunday's STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The guy who gladly has accepted and even revels in the nickname of "The Outlaw" bested the guy who wears the biggest white hat in the sport, six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.

After 83 winless races, nearly 30 months and four teams since his last triumph in 2011 at Dover International Speedway, The Outlaw finally took the longest overdue checkered flag in his career.

While the win boosted Busch four spots in the standings, the rough start he's had in 2014 prior to Sunday leaves him just tied for 20th with Casey Mears in the Sprint Cup rankings, still a distant 81 points behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That's almost two full race wins worth of points, but at least it's a start on the right track back for Busch.

And trying to get back on the right track is something he's been doing for the last two-plus seasons. Ever since he was released by Penske Racing after the 2011 season, following an ugly televised confrontation with ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch, Busch has worked diligently to get himself and his derailed career both going in the right direction.

While having a nickname like "The Outlaw" is kind of catchy, honestly, it's the last thing Busch needs, especially after Sunday.

Having worked on his own temper-prone personality, and then worked his way back to a championship-caliber organization such as Stewart-Haas Racing, hopefully Busch is back but "The Outlaw" is on its way out.

If Busch truly wants to get back to where he once was in his career, a threat to both win races and championships, having a disparaging nickname like "The Outlaw" is almost oxymoronic when it comes to what he wants to achieve and become.

If he wants fans, and especially non-Busch fans, the media and fellow competitors to respect him, "The Outlaw" is the last thing he needs to be known as.

Face it, "The Outlaw" just gives off a negative connotation, unlike, say, "The Intimidator" nickname of the late Dale Earnhardt.

Would Busch rather continue to be hated and disliked because of such a moniker, or would he rather be loved, admired and revered?

And isn't that what he's been trying to do since he was embarrassingly dumped by Team Penske?

"The Outlaw" does not give off the same connotation or meaning like Tony Stewart's "Smoke," Kevin Harvick's "Happy," Jeff Gordon's "Wonder Boy," Johnson's "Six-time," Carl Edwards' "Cousin Carl" or even Richard Petty's "The King."

It's disparaging and demeaning. Sure, it gets people's attention, but at what price? After working so hard to get back to where he was Sunday—Victory Lane—why would Busch want to continue to be associated with a nickname that means negativity and badness?

But enough about the nickname, for now.

Even more important, what does Sunday's win mean in the whole big scheme of things going forward?

Busch's Martinsville triumph verifies he still has what it takes to win. Even at his lowest points, he still possessed talent that most other drivers in the Cup Series envy.

And being one of only a select few active drivers in Sprint Cup who has won a championship in the series, not only was Sunday a continuation of Busch's comeback, it was also verification that he's finally made it back all the way.

Now, it'll become a matter of where he goes from here, rather than where he's come from and what he's gone through over the last two-plus seasons.

Being the sixth driver in as many races to win this season, Busch's chances to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup are certainly enhanced, but they're by no means guaranteed.

Of course, if he wins a second race—perhaps as early as the next event on the schedule, this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway—he would likely guarantee himself a spot in the Chase.

Think about what Busch did last season with Furniture Row Racing. Not only was his team based in Denver, nearly 1,600 miles away from NASCAR's heartland of Charlotte, N.C., Busch was the only driver for the single-car FRR team.

He was kind of an island unto himself not only geographically, but also by being the only person upon whose shoulders the team's competitive fortunes rested upon.

Even with all that working against him, Busch showed that while his personality may have some deficiencies, his talent didn't, becoming the first driver on a one-car team to ever qualify for the Chase in its 10-year history.

That's big, very big. And even though he ultimately finished 10th in the Chase, he still did it like Frank Sinatra: He did it his way.

Busch also did it his way in Sunday's win. He not only drove his butt off, he out-drove and beat the best driver in NASCAR.

While some—especially those who don't exactly revel in his "The Outlaw" nickname—might look at Busch's win as just a fluke or one-off accomplishment, it's likely just the contrary.

Rather, it's yet another new start in a series of new starts that he's gone through since the end of 2011. Only this time, it's likely the first of many more wins—if not championships—still to come.

The Outlaw is finally all the way back—and now that he is, he's back to stay. Now, if he can just come up with a better nickname.


Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.