Demoted and humbled, a different Kurt Busch comes to Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Kurt Busch "I'm Not That Bad of a Guy" Tour has begun.

If it goes well, next year he might not be in "That Bad of a Car."

To get it started, Busch apologized.

He found Dr. Jerry Punch, the reporter he was caught on video swearing at last year after the final race of the season, and said he felt bad about it.

"Let's just start off with a hug, Doc, come on," Busch said in a live interview on ESPN2 before the start of the Gatorade Duels on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm so sorry with the way last year ended."

Well, that's a good start. For now, it's what Busch will have to feel good about. The Tour is off to a slow start on the track. Driving for Phoenix Racing, Busch finished a lap down in his Gatorade Duel qualifying run for Sunday's Daytona 500.

But at least he's in the race, and that was no sure thing a few weeks ago, when he and Penske Racing agreed to part ways, perhaps in part because of the way last year ended.

At the end of the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami, Busch grew impatient waiting for a live interview with Punch. A fan filmed him swearing at the reporter and posted the video online.

For Busch, who already had a long reputation for hot-headedness and is well known for tongue-lashing his own team -- and even speaking flippantly to team owner Roger Penske -- it was another black eye.

Out of his ride, Busch had to scramble to find a spot with lower-tier Phoenix. It's just a one-year deal, and Busch couches it as a chance to return to his "old-school roots."

But it's basically a demotion. Instead of being the top driver in a top garage with a chance every week, Busch knows he and Phoenix now have to pick their spots to seriously gun for top-10s.

"Expectations for us are going to be one week at a time," he said. "There are going to be little victories we take in, whether it's finishing 15th and putting a car back in the hauler without a scratch on it, or contending for the win at Daytona."

Busch knows how to get a car around the track safely. The 33-year-old veteran has won 24 Sprint Cup races, and he's a three-time Daytona 500 runner-up.

Phoenix Racing is not where he should be at this point in his career. But he might as well make the most of it. He might become a more careful driver.

"It's just racing smart, racing old-school," he said. "It's like my dad's race team, where we had one Legends car and if we wrecked it, we couldn't race it the next week unless we had enough parts. And if you wreck it too much, it costs you too much to get to the racetrack. So, it's going to be that balance of understanding how to get the best out of the car for that day, whether it's 15th or if we have a shot at a top-10, make sure I still protect that car because we need to bring it back in a few weeks to race it again."

Busch and Phoenix are not exactly empty-handed, however.

Hendrick Motorsports is providing cars and engines in a partnership with Phoenix owner James Finch, and is their primary sponsor.

Busch's car showed speed in Speedweeks.

So the on-track comeback is showing hopeful signs. But even before he got to Daytona, Busch made sure things were OK with his former boss.

"It was a great departure the way we handled it," Busch said. "I e-mailed Roger the other day on when we're going to get together for dinner down at Daytona. I have no regrets and can't thank him enough for the time we spent together."

Now on to the next part of the tour.

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram