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IN THE PITS: Busch punished, now time to ease up

Drivers Kyle Busch (18) and Ron Hornaday Jr. crash along a wall during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino 350 race, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, in Fort Worth, Texas. Hornaday, the championship contender, was knocked out of the race when Busch retaliated by pushing the four-time champion into the wall. Busch's truck also was damaged heavily, and NASCAR parked him for the race with possibly more penalties to come afterward. Drivers Kyle Busch (18) and Ron Hornaday Jr. crash along a wall during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino 350 race, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, in Fort Worth, Texas. Hornaday, the championship contender, was knocked out of the race when Busch retaliated by pushing the four-time champion into the wall. Busch's truck also was damaged heavily, and NASCAR parked him for the race with possibly more penalties to come afterward. (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Paul Moseley)
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer / November 7, 2011

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CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Kyle Busch lost his temper and made a poor decision in what must have been a fit of rage.

For that, he has been severely punished.

Busch was parked -- the NASCAR equivalent of suspended -- for the Saturday and Sunday races at Texas Motor Speedway as a penalty for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday under caution in the Truck Series race. Instead of fleeing Texas, Busch stayed at the track and suffered the ultimate humiliation in sitting atop the pit box to watch someone else drive his race car.

Yet that doesn't seem to be enough suffering for a huge faction of NASCAR fans tired of Busch's antics. There have been calls for his immediate firing from Joe Gibbs Racing, and promises to boycott M&M's if Mars Inc. doesn't force Busch out by threatening to pull its sponsorship of the No. 18 team.

Those Toyota commercials that have run for weeks with Busch promoting the Camry were noticeably absent in Sunday's telecast, and team owner Gibbs was noncommittal when asked about Busch's future with the team.

The scrutiny of Busch and speculation on his future has been suffocating, and it's created a frenzied push for further penalties. On Monday, NASCAR fined Busch $50,000, placed him on probation through the end of the year and warned him he will be suspended indefinitely if he has another action NASCAR deems "disruptive to the orderly conduct of an event."

That's where it should end.

Being thrown out of a race is the most serious punishment in NASCAR, and one president Mike Helton doesn't exercise often. Only two other drivers had been parked prior to Busch in the last 10 years: Kevin Harvick wasn't allowed to run a 2002 Cup race at Martinsville for his actions during and after a Truck race, and Robby Gordon couldn't race the 2007 Cup race at Pocono for his actions during and after a Nationwide event in Montreal.

Lots of drivers have shown poor judgment over the past decade, but parking them has always been the last option in Helton's book of punishment. The reason? It can ruin a drivers' career.

Busch is already the most polarizing driver in NASCAR for both his 104 career victories in NASCAR's top three series, and a long list of bad boy behavior that stretches over his entire NASCAR career. Yes, he's one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR history. And yes, he has no one but himself to blame for all the drama that distracts from his accomplishments.

Busch figured out some time ago that he's his own worst enemy, and, although it seems hard to believe right now, he tried hard this year to make better decisions. Both his temperament and patience were much improved, despite the occasional setbacks that were almost exclusively of his own doing.

He feuded with Harvick earlier this year -- really, it's an ongoing mutual dislike of each other -- and earned a $25,000 fine when the two tangled on pit road at Darlington. He was caught driving 128 mph in a 45 mph zone in a borrowed Lexus valued at almost $400,000, and the infraction cost him his North Carolina driver's license for 45 days and 30 hours of community service.

There was an altercation in the garage at Kansas with rival owner Richard Childress, and Busch intentionally wrecked Elliott Sadler in a Nationwide race at Bristol.

It adds up to quite a long rap sheet, and that had to have played into NASCAR's decision.

Series officials have struggled to find a defined line in the "Boys, have at it" era of allowing drivers to police themselves. Busch is suddenly the case study for how far is too far, but in claiming his suspension was based solely on his actions of Friday night, NASCAR, at best, seems inconsistent in its rulings.

In the first test of "Boys, have at it," Carl Edwards came out of the garage and returned to the track for the sole purpose of retaliating against Brad Keselowski. The intentional wrecking spiraled out of control, as the contact from Edwards sent Keselowski's car sailing through the air and into the fence.

Edwards wasn't parked for his action, wasn't fined or placed on probation through the end of the year. Instead, his penalty was probation for three races.

Unlike Busch, who admitted after Friday's accident "I lost my cool, no doubt about it," Edwards' action was premeditated. But in both instances, the accident was far worse than what either driver had intended to cause.

But Hornaday was in a championship race and Busch ruined his chances -- a factor many argued NASCAR had to consider. Well, where was the outcry last year when David Reutimann intentionally wrecked Busch to effectively end his title chances?

So NASCAR, tired of so many missteps by Busch, took a stand and gave him the harshest punishment in the book. Maybe it was long overdue, but it sent a strong message that likely has Busch fearing the affect it will have on his future in NASCAR. He could lose his job. He could be ordered to stop racing in the Nationwide and Truck Series -- an edict that would cripple Kyle Busch Motorsports -- or he could face further sanctions from JGR and his sponsors.

There's no doubt he made a mistake, and maybe it's the one that will change his behavior conclusively. But it's been addressed, severely and swiftly, and Busch should now be allowed to begin repairing his reputation.