Defending NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch was suspended for the last two races of the season yesterday by car owner Jack Roush after being cited for reckless driving by police near Phoenix International Raceway on Friday night.
The citation amounted to an embarrassment for Busch and for NASCAR officials, who have zealously marketed their drivers' wholesome, family-friendly qualities in an effort to reach a broader audience.
Busch was taken into custody for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol after a Maricopa (Ariz.) sheriff's deputy pulled him over for driving roughly 60 mph in a 45-mph zone and running a stop sign, Lt. Paul Chagolla, a Maricopa County sheriff's spokesman, told the Associated Press on Saturday. Busch refused to perform standard sobriety tests on the scene, was verbally abusive to the deputy and was taken into custody, according to Chagolla. After officials were unable to perform a blood-alcohol test because the machine malfunctioned, Busch was cited for reckless driving and released.
NASCAR just last year dropped its prohibition on hard-liquor sponsorships (beer has been allowed for decades), and Busch was among the beneficiaries, with Crown Royal signing on to bankroll his No. 97 Ford. In 2006, Busch will move to Penske Racing to drive the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.
News of Busch's troubles began circulating in the NASCAR garage Saturday morning. That evening, Busch issued a statement expressing "regret" over the incident and apologizing to the sheriff's department for his actions. "It is important to understand that this citation is not alcohol-related," Busch said in the statement.
Roush initially indicated he would not take action, given that he had granted Busch a release from his contract earlier this month so he could move to Penske Racing. But after consulting with Busch's current sponsors -- Diageo (Crown Royal's parent company) and Newell Rubbermaid -- Roush suspended him for the balance of the season.
"All parties are in complete support that the action being taken today is necessary and appropriate under the circumstances," Roush said in a statement issued yesterday. "We give our profound apology and support to the arresting officer and the entire Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and thank all of the officers for the great job they do with helping the Phoenix International Raceway bring our event to so many wonderful Arizona race fans."
Busch was informed of the suspension yesterday morning, and Kenny Wallace, a regular on NASCAR's Grand National circuit, was tapped to drive in yesterday's race.
The episode brought a premature ending to a rocky tenure at Roush Racing.
Busch, 27, a Las Vegas native, has been a headache in several respects since joining the team in 2000. He has tangled with NASCAR officials and drawn the ire of numerous drivers -- including Jimmy Spencer, Robby Gordon and teammate Greg Biffle -- for on- and off-track scuffles.
After trading paint and profanities at Michigan in 2003, Spencer punched Busch in the nose and drew a $25,000 fine. But Busch's attempts to portray himself as a victim were exposed by audio-taped tirades that chronicled him plotting to ram Spencer during the race and egging Spencer on to hit him afterward. Gordon offered to pay Spencer's fine, while fans booed Busch mercilessly. While Busch qualified for NASCAR's 2005 postseason, he was eighth in the standings and out of contention for the title entering yesterday's race in Phoenix.