DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 26: Kurt Busch, driver of the #51 Tag Heuer Avant-Garde Chevrolet Chevrolet, walks with girlfriend Patricia Driscoll and son Houston Hermanstorfer during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Is Kurt Busch stuck in a never-ending cycle of negativity, or can he successfully change his image?
Question: If a driver spikes a water bottle in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?
Answer: Only if his last name is "Busch."
Kurt Busch was frustrated and disappointed when he walked out of the infield medical center following a crash in Sunday's NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so he threw his water bottle to the ground in view of approximately two fans and zero cameras.
If the driver was Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick, the incident most likely would have gone unreported or been dismissed as an act of racing passion.
But, Busch's bottle toss was instead reported as a "meltdown" on Twitter and SPEED's Wind Tunnel show after the race, classified as yet another example of Busch-like behavior from brothers Kurt and Kyle.
Because Kurt Busch has lost his temper so often or said the wrong thing so many times over the years, he's become NASCAR's version of Lindsay Lohan: everyone is waiting to pounce on his next mistake.
Here's the question: Is that fair?
Perhaps it is. Maybe Busch's behavior has been so unacceptable – the tirades on his team radio, his YouTube rant against ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch – that he's lost the benefit of the doubt and deserves to have every wrong move added to an ever-growing list.
If that's true, he only has himself to blame – and he knows it.
"Bottom line: My mouth runs faster than my brain, and so it's gotten me in trouble, all the time," he told SB Nation last month. "I've drug all the attention onto myself."
On the other hand, at what point does Busch prove himself worthy of a second chance? NASCAR fans seem unwilling to forgive him or believe he's sincere about changing his image. And while they have a reason to be skeptical, even his critics have to acknowledge he's making a true effort this year.
Before the season, Busch told everyone who would listen that 2012 would be all about having fun with his new team, Phoenix Racing. So far, though, the results have been anything but fun.
Busch crashed in both the Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500, then lost one of the team's best cars (it doesn't have many to begin with) at Las Vegas. He ranks 30th in points after three weeks, but has largely kept his composure.
For a guy who has struggled to keep his temper in check after past setbacks, his lack of outbursts have been noteworthy.
Does a spiked water bottle destroy all that?
"There's this black cloud above my head," Busch said recently, sitting in an Italian restaurant with his girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll.
Driscoll nodded, as if she'd heard Busch make that statement before.
"Rain, rain, rain, rain," they said at the same time, making matching rain shower hand motions over Busch's head.
Though Busch has won 24 career Sprint Cup Series races and a series championship, he has never won in the public eye since entering the sport.
In under a year, Busch went from running local short tracks to finishing one spot behind Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in his 2000 Cup debut at Dover. Busch finished third in points in his second full Cup season in 2002, and life was never the same.
"Once you have that success at a young age, the cockiness or the arrogance shines through," he said. "People would say, ‘Oh, he doesn't realize how good he has it.' And I didn't, really. I was just flying by the seat of my pants."
The next year, Busch clashed with veteran driver Jimmy Spencer in an infamous episode and became a villain to NASCAR fans everywhere. Since then, no matter how hard he's tried – and he admits he's often tried too hard to be liked – Busch never seems to be viewed in a positive light.
At the track, Busch has most often exhibited one of two personas: The hard-edged, ultra-competitive racer who refuses to accept losing or the forced, robotic corporate pitchman.
Neither have been popular with NASCAR fans.
The way Busch sees it, his "regular guy mode" is what most people only experience if they're playing a competitive sport. When he gets into a competition, he believes his adrenaline and reactions move to a level beyond what most of us can understand.
When reporters approach, he goes into a guarded "interview mode" in an attempt to come across as cooperative while avoiding the type of controversies that burned him early in his career.
"I figured the image thing would iron itself out," he said. "But you forget who you really are. I've tried so hard that it's really not gone the right way."
Outside of the race car, Busch resembles neither of his at-track personalities:
• He's an avid wine collector who keeps more than 1,000 bottles in a custom-built basement cellar.
• He's deeply passionate about supporting the military, particularly troops who have been injured or experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. He and Driscoll even had a disabled veteran stay in their home for a weekend last year.
• He can quote the section, row and seat numbers from his family's old season tickets at Phoenix International Raceway, where he sat and watched NASCAR races in middle school and high school.
• He dates Driscoll, a Washington, D.C. power player who heads the Armed Forces Foundation and counts some of the country's most influential people as friends.
Busch's relationship with Driscoll – they started dating after Busch and his ex-wife separated last year – is an interesting one. A strong and self-assured woman, Driscoll has been an advocate for Busch who has also helped him understand the need for change.
"He's the average working guy," Driscoll said. "He's not like a lot of kids you see today who have to come with a lot of money to come in NASCAR. He and Kyle made it because they worked hard and are talented. But they didn't know any other stuff. That's the disadvantage."
Driscoll put her hand on Busch's arm.
"I grew up around politics, so I know how to play the game," she said. "This does not come natural to him. He does not know any of this. He does not have any of that polish."
The couple is highly competitive with one another and keeps a running tally of their games. From miniature golf to the Oregon Trail iPhone game, Busch and Driscoll spar over rules and who really won.
"I beat him, just for the record," Driscoll said about a recent game.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Busch said, protesting. "You changed the rules!"
"Who won yesterday?" Driscoll teased.
"I don't want to hear about it," Busch grumbled.
"He refuses to say, 'I lost to you,'" Driscoll said, laughing. "And he's an ass for like half an hour! Because he lost at freakin' Oregon Trail!"
That competitive side of Busch is never going to change. After all, how many people are able to alter the essence of their being at age 33?
Busch will always be the fiery driver who despises losing. But can he channel his emotions in a way that makes the black cloud disappear long enough to resurrect his career?
And will he be able to rehabilitate his image while his every move is scrutinized?
When his new crew chief (not Busch) swore on the radio during practice at Daytona, the driver pulled into his team's garage stall to find three TV cameras waiting for him.
"It was just like dropping blood in the water and having sharks circle around," he said later. "It's like, ‘I didn't even cuss, guys!'"
It will likely take months of perfect behavior – or longer – for Busch to change his reputation. Even then, something as simple as spiking a water bottle might be viewed as the "same ol' Kurt."
The fairest thing to do would be to judge each incident separately instead of lumping any slip-ups into his pile of previous transgressions.
But when it comes to Kurt Busch and his black cloud, life is not always fair.