DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It didn’t take long — one practice session, in fact — to see how different life is this season for Kurt Busch.

His new car was wrecked in the first practice session of the season Friday, and the backup Phoenix

Racing had on hand at Daytona International Speedway was missing its seat.
Not exactly putting the fun back into racing, eh?

Busch took a calm approach to Friday’s accident, which began when defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart turned him as he pushed Busch’s car at Daytona International Speedway. It wrecked a really good race car — Busch had the fastest 10-lap average over the practice session — and guaranteed a long day of work for Phoenix Racing to get him ready for tonight’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout.

“Just all the hard work, and the limited cars we have, we don’t need to have wrecked cars,” said Busch, who after thanking sponsor Tag Heuer, smiled. “We’ll be all right.”
Serenity now!

Busch is working hard this season to repair his reputation and learn to enjoy life a little more. He struggled with that the last few years at Penske Racing, where his intense focus and constant desire to win often blinded him from the big picture. An ill-handling race car often sent him into an obscenity-laced rant, and incidents with rival Jimmie Johnson left him seeing red.

His temper got the best of him time and time again, and the final straw came in the season finale at Homestead, where he lashed out at an ESPN reporter in an incident captured by a fan and posted on YouTube. Busch and Penske Racing mutually agreed to split two weeks later, and Busch said at the time it was obvious he was unhappy and he desperately needed to “put the fun back in racing.”

That’s what he’s trying to do now with James Finch’s underfunded race team.

He landed at Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 Chevrolet, and spends many a day in the Spartanburg, S.C., race shop. He said the team has 18 employees, but every time he counts, he only comes up with 16.

The team doesn’t have a sponsor for the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500, and with a season-long need to find funding, Busch is determined to prove he’s still a tremendous value. In doing so, though, he’s reluctant to claim he’s a changed man or he’s got a clean slate ahead of him.

“There’s no fresh start here. There’s no new image. There’s no revamping,” he said. “Time will take care of that, and I hope by October people will realize that when I said I’m going to put the fun back in racing, that they can see that I’ve done that. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

But Busch is different.

Although he still tries to stay on message in interviews, he doesn’t seem to be as guarded. He smiles and makes self-deprecating jokes, and willingly admits he’s made many mistakes.
He’s still careful with his words, though, nervous that something he says out of honesty will be misconstrued or perceived as him being arrogant, or, even worse, a jerk.

Busch can’t help that, he cares too much about what people say, and learning to tune out the criticism is one of the biggest tasks of his self-improvement project. He’s been working with a psychologist since late last season, and believes his weekly sessions have been helpful.

“There’s projects that he gives me each and every week, and one of them was that when you see a unique article written, take it throw it in the fire and write 10 positive things that you want out of it next time,” said Busch, and “I’m like ‘Sweet! I get to burn something!’ So I’m destroying something, burning something, and I get to write 10 positive things.

“I’m twisting it into a way that I can digest it.”

He knows he’s got a long way to go in the court of public opinion, and overcoming his negative image isn’t easy. A recent survey by Forbes found Busch to be the 10th most disliked athlete in professional sports, and the most disliked race car driver.

Busch took it in stride, joking he had been ranked third in a previous Forbes poll so his current spot is an obvious improvement. But that YouTube video from November didn’t help anything, and he pays for it during the mundane activities of daily life.

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