CONCORD, N.C. Kurt Busch has been ordered by NASCAR to start behaving like a champion. His first test will be the All-Star race, an event at which Busch has struggled to stay out of trouble.
The defending Nextel Cup champion has had at least two gaffes in the $1 million race, including triggering an 11-car accident last year that wrecked both Busch and teammate Greg Biffle. He also admitted to intentionally spinning Robby Gordon in 2002 to bring out a caution that would regroup the field and give Busch a chance to win the race.
Because the Nextel All-Star Challenge is a dash for cash, with no points at stake, a driver can take risks without jeopardizing his pursuit of NASCAR's championship.
But Busch no longer has that flexibility, because of a tantrum he threw at Darlington two weeks ago. He's now on unofficial probation, given notice that NASCAR no longer will tolerate his bad behavior.
After working so hard to clean up his image, Busch regrets his relapse.
''I think anybody is entitled to slipping and to showing their frustration,'' Busch said. ''Being able to move on and to admit to it is the next phase, and then you go to the next week with a fresh attitude to win the race.''
Busch was not penalized for his Darlington outburst, which began when he wrecked on the first lap of the race. He got his damaged Ford back on the track to race for points, but was at least 60 laps down when he lined up in the wrong place on the track during a caution.
NASCAR told him where to go, and Busch refused. He then was called into the pits for a penalty, and responded with a series of expletives directed at NASCAR officials over his in-car radio.
He also revved his engine and tossed a water bottle that hit the NASCAR official in his pit.
NASCAR officials said his behavior was not ''befitting of a champion'' and expressed disappointment after all the work Busch had done to repair his reputation after many scuffles (Jimmy Spencer punched him in the nose in 2003) and tantrums (he had a previous profanity-laced tirade aimed at NASCAR in 2002) in his first few years in the Cup series.
''He had been doing a good job as champion and representing NASCAR appropriately,'' said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter. ''Then he relapsed. Kurt has a responsibility to the sport and must conduct himself like a champion.''
Busch got the message loud and clear, and said his meeting in the NASCAR trailer with president Mike Helton after Darlington was punishment enough.
''I'm not there to bend any of the rules. I'm there to abide by them, and as a champion represent the sport that way,'' he said. ''You don't want to go in (the NASCAR trailer). It's a scenario where you listen quite often and you speak in very short words.
''You get your point across quickly because the mother hand is on top. By no means did we escape anything. It's tough when you go into the hauler.''
So now Busch must defend his Cup championship while watching carefully what he says and does both on and off the track. Remember, it wasn't his spin of Gordon that got him into trouble after the 2002 All-Star race it was Busch admitting he did it on purpose in two separate interviews after the race.
When NASCAR found out, Busch backpedaled and said he was only joking. The sanctioning body was not amused and fined him $10,000.
Busch just wants to put it all behind him and focus on winning the All-Star race. He's actually done well in this race in two of his three appearances, finishing second in 2003 and fourth in 2002. His wreck 10 laps into the race last season prevented him from finishing.
Jimmy Fennig, Busch's crew chief, isn't worried about his driver bouncing back from his latest flap with NASCAR in time to chase the $1 million payout.
''This is really a driver's race ... and Kurt has had two solid runs in this event. I don't see any reason he shouldn't have another good run on Saturday night,'' Fennig said. ''We've had some bad luck here lately, but hopefully a good finish in this deal can get us back on track.''
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