HAMPTON, Ga. The last time Kurt Busch won a race, he sat in his car for several minutes in Victory Lane before conjuring the courage to face the public.
When he emerged, the eruption of boos around the Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway was everything he expected and feared and it seemed to distract from the celebration.
Two months later, some wonder if it continues to be a distraction. Since that victory a win that came at the end of the most-tumultuous week in Busch's young racing career the 25-year-old driver has veered wildly off course.
A year ago, he closed the season with three wins in the final five races, and he opened the 2003 campaign with three more victories in the first 24 races. Now he's struggling to find the top 10. In his last three races, he's finished 40th, 41st and 39th.
Everything was going well for the former water company meter-reader until he got punched in the nose by Jimmy Spencer.
Spencer was fined $50,000 and suspended for the race at Bristol for hitting Busch on Aug. 17 after a race at Michigan International Speedway.
By the time the sport had moved to Bristol six days later, Busch was being vilified in the media and by many racing fans because taped conversations with his team during the Michigan race disclosed that Busch hit Spencer at nearly 190 mph with the intention of bending the front fender onto his tire.
After the race, other recordings indicated he stopped his car directly behind Spencer's truck in the garage area, although he told NASCAR he ran out of gas. That same recording also disclosed the young driver threatening Spencer.
So Spencer punched him.
Busch compounded his own problems by admitting two days before the Bristol race that hitting a competitor was an acceptable way to gain an advantage. Fellow drivers and fans took exception. They said his comments proved what they felt all along: Busch was both talented and reckless.
The only drivers who didn't condemn him at Bristol were his Roush Racing teammates.
Fans loudly booed him during pre-race festivities at Bristol. Their dislike for the brash driver accelerated during the race when he knocked Sterling Marlin into the wall during his run to victory.
''I got run over by Kurt Busch,'' Marlin said. ''It was a bone-headed move. I guess Spencer didn't hit him hard enough.''
While NASCAR did nothing more than put Busch on probation for the rest of the year, his sponsor, Newell Rubbermaid responded by issuing an apology after the victory and stating it would demand Busch participate in a mentoring program.
His car owner, Jack Roush, said his young driver is learning a difficult lesson that there's a lot more to being a driver on the Winston Cup Series than turning a steering wheel.
''Kurt has learned things in the past three years that he didn't know he needed to know,'' Roush said. ''He's becoming wiser every day and we're just working our way through it.''
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