Bristol A Busch Blast

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Before heading to Bristol, which could turn into an all-out rumble between short-track gladiators Kurt Busch and Rusty Wallace, thoughts as the circuit heads for the elimidate that is Richmond.

Two races have passed since Busch's bombshell that he's signed to drive for Roger Penske beginning in 2007. And true to his nature, Busch hasn't bobbled - at least in public. From the moment he disclosed his future plans, Busch has said he is dedicated to repeating as champion and will fulfill his contract through 2006 with Roush. He insists his crew, all professionals, support his efforts and will continue to do so.

Busch enters Sunday's Sharpie 500 - ironically enough his sponsors' signature race - seventh in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup rankings, a drop of two positions since his dinger. Only a true paranoid would suggest there is any correlation. In any event, Busch is fairly assured of earning his way into the final 10-race countdown, which begins Sept. 10 at Richmond.

So what's with the hesitation to fully endorse a move unprecedented not only in NASCAR, but other major-league sports? Even without contract restrictions, quarterbacks and centers historically haven't switched teams with another season on their contract. Athletes not only are beholden to their teams, they are forbidden (as are team owners) from even discussing the idea of a jump to a new organization while still under contract.

Why? I'm no expert, but off the top of my head I'd say the reason for the restriction is that human beings being human, if athletes and owners weren't held to contracts, chaos would reign. Anyone with a stellar season could put his or her shingle out and say "come and get me," while the team which supported the effort and had every reason to believe the starring cast wouldn't change would be left dangling.

So here we are exploring the unknown. To be fair to Busch, it would be rare for anybody - athlete or hot-air pilot -- to turn down the chance to secure a phenomenal payday through the next decade. Stock car racing remains unique in that it's up to a driver - many of whom are paid millions of dollars annually - to invest in their own future.

While Busch's words in recent weeks have sounded right, it remains to be seen how this deal plays out. Human beings being human, it would be natural if some - if not all - of his support personnel are just a shade confused, wondering if and how they fit into the future of the No. 97 Ford. Do they remain with Roush, betting he can fill Busch's seat with another potential champion? Do they follow Busch to Penske and the No. 2 Dodge, which already has a complement of distinguished help? Wondering about the course of one's future is as natural as three strikes and you're out.

Which brings us to Jamie McMurray, the driver who in hindsight will be recognized as the instigator of the leap-frogging contract. McMurray was the first NASCAR pilot to sign with a new organization (with Roush, of all teams) with a year intervening. Perhaps it's splitting hairs, but McMurray was told by Roush from the beginning his services wouldn't be needed until 2007; it was he who approached current owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates and asked for an early release. Principal owner Ganassi has said no, which is only logical when it comes to his top-ranked driver.

Roush, in the meantime, has repeatedly used the word "challenge" in describing dealing with Busch. Translated, this means Busch has let it be known he believes his worth hasn't been fully rewarded in his first year as champion. Teammate Mark Martin, a Busch supporter who planned to retire this season but - with several open seats - may stay, says it's been hard for Busch to understand financial rewards will come. Admitting that Roush has always extended his contract with several years remaining, Martin isn't about to bash Busch for trying to ensure his future.

So here we are, in the midst of this grand experiment, wondering how the scenario will play out. According to Kyle Petty, the big wow is that Busch was forthright about his plans when it wasn't contractually necessary. According to Petty the fastest means of communication are the telephone and "tell-someone-in-the-garage," and he was stunned by Busch's secrecy and that it ended. The smart thing for Busch would have been to sign and keep his mouth shut.

If Busch is to be granted points, it's for being upfront. He could have remained silent, but that didn't feel right. Busch recognized that multi-million-dollar sponsors plan advertising campaigns at least a year ahead and (at least in his mind) has given it an out. No doubt the conversations between Roush and Sharpie have been intense, with Roush saying it's up to the sponsor whether to keep the driver and the sponsor relying on Roush's expertise. Some will disagree with his methods, but Busch should get props for being upfront and allowing his teammates to chart their own course.

Don't take it to Las Vegas, but the betting here is that Busch will be released to drive for Penske next season, contingent on a substantial deposit in the Roush bank account. McMurray's immediate future is harder to predict, as (team co-owner) Felix Sabates has personal issues with Roush and Ganassi can't be expected to free his top driver without a star-in-the-making.

Regardless, in the here and now Busch, McMurray and Wallace - the man Busch will eventually replace - face the bullring that is Bristol. Kevin Harvick was the victor there in April, but Busch has won four races there since 2002 and Wallace leads active drivers with nine career triumphs.

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