Kurt Busch: Why Sprint Cup Sponsors Are Afraid of the Former Cup Champ

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJune 18, 2012

BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 16:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet, walks away from his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 16, 2012 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Kurt Busch is the Ricky Bobby of the Sprint Cup Series right now, a comparison that he has drawn to himself in more than one way.

Besides getting fired from his top-tier ride and starting over as an independent, and besides borrowing the "Me" paint scheme and firesuit from "Talladega Nights," Busch has become somewhat of a caricature of himself over the past season, letting his temper get the best of him in an almost Jekyll-and-Hyde fashion.

That's a huge part of the reason why his No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet is typically unsponsored coming into any given weekend.

Busch's inability to deal with the media in a respectable fashion is something that the sport's more image-conscious sponsors are unwilling to tolerate. As NASCAR is now miles ahead of its golden age in public relations, drivers are unable to show as much of their temper as they were in the past.

While Busch's heated reactions to journalists may be uncalled for in any era, the cleaner, more even-tempered nature of the sport these days only serves to emphasize just how hot-headed he has been.

But when the incidents pile up as they have with Busch, the reputation that comes with them can easily spiral out of control. He ripped up an interview transcript in Richmond last year when the AP's Jenna Fryer wanted to ask him about something he said.

He berated ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch after falling out of the season finale at Homestead last year. He received a one-race suspension for threatening to fight the Sporting News' Bob Pockrass after the Dover Nationwide Series race.

The troubles have continued since Busch's return. At Michigan on Saturday, ESPN reports that MRN interviewers said that Busch blew them off for a post-race interview. Busch left the media room to cool off, leading to a verbal exchange with ESPN's Marty Smith as he looked for further comments. He then gave a brief press conference with little content or interaction with reporters.

BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 17:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet, pits after an incident early in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 17, 2012 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Pho
John Harrelson/Getty Images

And all of that excludes his on-track incidents with fellow drivers. This may not be a revelation to anyone, but Busch has become a public relations nightmare.

To his credit, Busch has retained a handful of personal sponsors who were willing to step up in one-race deals—Monster Energy and Tag Heuer among them—but those were both for all-star events. In fact, only twice has his car carried sponsorship from somebody other than owner James Finch's construction company, and that was Rick Hendrick's online car dealership. (Hendrick Motorsports provides equipment for Phoenix Racing in a deal dating back to Brad Keselowski's stint with the team.)

The biggest problem with Busch is that his behavior attracts the type of sponsorship that NASCAR would likely rather avoid. The only big name that has been rumored in connection with Phoenix is the Jerry Springer Show; it is typical, rowdy audience is the last thing that NASCAR would like to see coming into its races, as the sport still fights the last bastions of a trashy, "redneck" stereotype.

A partnership like that, while great for an independent team that could use an infusion of sponsorship cash, could represent a major setback for a sport that still struggles to assert its maturity to parts of America.

Busch's team will stick behind him for as long as they have him. They clearly see something in him that the rest of us do not, even as the list of misbehaviors seemingly grows every weekend. Finch and Phoenix Racing would not have stuck with him otherwise.

For now, Busch will just have to focus on climbing up the standings, scoring solid finishes, and letting everything else sort itself out. That's the only chance at a Hollywood ending for this fallen star.


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