Elliott Sadler stands on his car in victory lane after winning Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series 300 auto race in Bristol, Tenn., Saturday, March 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Autostock, Nigel Kinrade)
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- If Kurt Busch had any doubt he's stuck in a run of bad luck, it was probably confirmed when he hit a bird in one of the final practices for the Daytona 500.
"It was like hitting a six-pound bowling ball," he grimaced Saturday.
Alas, there was more to come for Busch, who suffered through a horrendous SpeedWeeks at Daytona.
He was wrecked in practice for the exhibition opening race, and his new Phoenix Racing team had to thrash to put a seat in his backup car. The backup was then wrecked with two laps remaining in the race.
He was flagged for speeding on pit road in the Daytona 500 qualifying race, hit the bird in practice the day before the race in a collision that caused so much damage his team had to change the engine, and was leading when he was part of the last-lap wreck in the Nationwide Series race.
Then, after sitting through the 36-hour rain delay for the main event, he was caught in an accident on the second lap of the Daytona 500.
The next race at Phoenix wasn't so bad, but last week in Las Vegas, his hometown, was a disaster: Busch had four different issues and his race ended with a hard crash after he ran over debris on the track.
He goes into today's race at Bristol Motor Speedway ranked 29th in points -- the lowest Busch has been in the standings a month into the season since his 2001 rookie year.
"I'm walking down pit road and people are looking up at the sky, hoping they don't get hit by the same lightning," Busch said. "That's just my life in general, (stuff) just keeps happening."
All the while, the public watches and waits for some sort of meltdown from Busch.
His ranting and raving over his in-car radio was notorious, and reached an all-time low last season. There were a handful of other public outbursts, and he and Penske Racing decided to part ways at the end of last season. Busch believed he needed a fresh start, which he got with James Finch's low-budget Phoenix Racing, and he went into this year determined to "put the fun back in racing."
But Busch's history made it easy to believe a fast-moving rumor last Sunday that Busch had reverted back to his old ways following the accident at Las Vegas. Both the driver and team representatives say Busch threw a water bottle at a chain-link fence as he exited the infield care center, but, like an old wives tale, the story has morphed into an alleged major meltdown.
"Typical Kurt Busch. I go through the checkups for the infield care center, come walking out, just so happens my car is going by on the hook to the garage area," Busch said. "It just set in that that was my California car. So, there it goes, and I'm like 'sweet.' And by the way, you are probably dead last in points cause now you have wrecked two out of three races, and it's my hometown, and it's just like 'What else is going to happen?'
"So I threw the water bottle at a chain-link fence. Nobody was around. The mouse that's underneath the infield care center didn't even see it."
When Denny Hamlin threw a water bottle at his race car two seasons ago at Phoenix, an act of frustration caught during the live telecast, there was no outrage. When Busch does something similar, people seemingly want his head.
True, he has only himself to blame for being under such scrutiny. But the reality is, if throwing a water bottle is the worst thing Busch has done in this rocky start to the season, he should be applauded for the gains he's made in keeping his temper under control.
Intensity and an inability to accept mediocrity has always been Busch's main flaw, and settling for an average finish is beyond him. But his new job with Phoenix Racing is forcing him to celebrate minor victories, such as finishing 15th at Phoenix two weeks ago.
Although he seems convinced he's got a black cloud hanging over his head, he acknowledges the bad luck can't follow him forever.
"There are going to be our shining moments where we put a solid race together, be a top-10, a top-five," Busch said. "Phoenix was 15th, that's exactly what we needed. Anybody and everybody can wreck at Daytona. Vegas, we just were on pit road when caution came out, got a flat tire, had an air hose problem, then popped a left rear when debris came flying at us. That's four things that can happen in any race, and we had them happen all in one race.
"That's the way it's working right now, and can't do anything except just keep going. The only way we are ever going to get through this is just keep plugging away. It's just the way racing goes sometimes."
Now Busch has Bristol in front of him, and this was long ago his best track.
Busch has five wins at the bullring, including four victories in five races from 2002 to 2004. But his last win was in 2006, and Busch has just one top-five finish in the 11 races since that last trip to Victory Lane.
Busch starts 27th in Sunday's race, and that's about where he ran in Saturday's two practice sessions.
He's taking an open mind into the race.
"It's wide-open with how the results can end up," he said. "You can be running around eighth to 10th all day, have a loose lug nut on your last pit stop, be the last car on the lead lap and finish 22nd. I'm dead serious. So my key is to be on the lead lap all day, and then race at the end. That's what I am shooting for."