- Associated Press
Friday, November 11, 2011

AVONDALE, ARIZ. (AP) - Kyle Busch, contrite and remorseful, promised Friday to change his behavior and conduct himself in a way that will restore the respect he lost with his road rage incident at Texas.

It’s a long way back for Busch, and he’ll be on a very short leash.

Busch has been warned by M&M’s that the primary sponsor will not tolerate any more incidents by him, and team owner Joe Gibbs said the driver is still facing further punishment for wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution in last week’s Truck Series race. NASCAR suspended Busch from all on-track activity at Texas, fined him $50,000 and placed the driver on probation through the end of the year.

It led to a frantic week of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsors who viewed Busch’s latest incident as the final straw for the polarizing driver.

Firing him was not an option, Gibbs said.

“In a situation like this you can make one or two decisions. One would have been devastating and really discouraging for everyone around him and for the sport,” Gibbs said. “What I’ve chosen to do, I want to support Kyle, and feel as if this could have a positive impact on Kyle and I am committed to him as a person. I like him. We’ve gone through a lot together. We’re looking forward to a long relationship.”

Busch was thankful for the support during what he called “a trying week” and admitted he worried he might be fired for the second time in his career. Busch was let go from Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the 2007 season when the team made room for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I’m apologetic for everyone having to go through this situation. There’s no one to blame but myself. Joe has been a huge supporter of me and can’t say enough about him,” Busch said.

“Was there a point in which I thought, `Do I have a ride?’ Of course there was. I thought that (it might happen). Was there a point in which Joe ever told me that, `Hey, we’re looking at terminating this?’ No.”

But there had to be a point Busch was worried the decision could be out of Gibbs’ hands.

The fallout from Busch losing his temper at Texas stretched deep into the sponsorship side of NASCAR, where every team is heavily dependent on funding from outside businesses. Although M&M’s parent company Mars Inc. has a contract with JGR, company officials wrangled with JGR all week over whether they wanted Busch to represent the brand anymore.

Gibbs admitted Friday the team was in limbo most of the week, unsure if NASCAR would suspend Busch longer and if M&M’s would refuse to allow him in the car.

Ultimately, M&M’s did withdrawal from the final two races of the year, but Gibbs put longtime partner Interstate Batteries on the No. 18 Toyota. Gibbs would not discuss whether the team had to refund money to Mars, if Busch will collect salary these final two weeks, or if Interstate Batteries had to pay to get on the car.

But Interstate chairman Norm Miller said his 20-year relationship with Gibbs _ his company was JGR’s first sponsor _ was the primary reason he stepped up for Busch. Interstate sponsored Busch in seven races this year in NASCAR’s top three series.

“We feel NASCAR took the appropriate action with Kyle, and we think he will become a better person for it,” Miller said in a statement. “We also understand and honor Mars’ reasons for stepping back for these last two weeks of the season. As founding sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, we felt it was the right thing to do to support JGR, Kyle and the No. 18 team during this difficult time.”

Interstate’s affiliation will undoubtedly bring attention to the company the last two weeks as Busch is one of the most recognized drivers in NASCAR and brings his sponsors a ton of exposure. According to Joyce Julius and Associates, Busch ranked first among all Sprint Cup drivers in mentions (4,991) and interview time (1 hour, 1 minute) through the first 32 races of the season. He ranked third in number of interviews (49).

With 104 victories in the top three series, Busch is one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR and opened the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship tied with Kevin Harvick as the top seed. But he stumbled through the first few races, never challenged for the title, and his suspension last weekend dropped him from seventh to 11th in points.

“That’s a huge deal,” Gibbs said. “I know Kyle and all of us were excited about getting back in the top five and this will probably take that away from us and we understand that.”

At last year’s season-ending awards banquet, the monetary difference between the seventh and 11th-place driver was $393,982.

And, Gibbs promised additional penalties would be levied against Busch.

“We also have other actions that are going to be in place,” Gibbs said. “There will be other financial penalties and stuff that we’re working through and we’ll continue to do that as we go forward through this process.”

Busch’s participation in the Nationwide and Trucks Series also could be in jeopardy. He’s been swapped for teammate Denny Hamlin in next week’s Nationwide finale, and his participation in the Truck race has not been announced. He drives a truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and Harvick said Friday he understood the seat has been offered to Hornaday for next season.

Hornaday said he has talked to Busch about the ride.

Busch, clearly relieved to be back at the track, acknowledged he’s got a lot of work to do going forward.

“I’m sure I lost respect with my team, my sponsors, my peers, and I understand those consequences,” he said. “I understand my actions were uncalled for and disrespectful. I’m here to make sure I can continue in a positive manner and make sure everyone believes in me from this week forward.

“I want to be with Joe Gibbs Racing, I want to be in NASCAR, I want to be driving the M&M’s Toyota. For all of that to work out and to work together, certainly it’s going to be through a lot of my efforts and my efforts behaviorally.”

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