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Ben Smith

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Gordon? Stewart? JJ? No, winner will be …

– So maybe it goes this way, in what this year they’re calling Crown Royal presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard: Your Name Here wins the thing.

Maybe you look down there at the end of another combustible day, and the usual suspects aren’t kissing the bricks. There’s no Jeff Gordon getting his lips gritty for the fifth time or Tony Stewart doing it for the third time or Jimmie Johnson doing it for the fourth time.

Maybe you look down there, and here’s what you say: “Who?

Indianapolis is a place, after all, where that has happened before, where the usual suspects occasionally get thrown over for “Who?” It’s the most fickle of joints, anyway, but never more so than when the stock cars come to town.

You look up one year, for instance, and there’s Ricky Rudd, who never won more than two races in a season in 32 of them, kissing the bricks. Or an aging Bill Elliott, competing in his next-to-last full season. Or Paul Menard, who’d never won in 166 Sprint Cup starts until the checkers flew for him last July at the place where he practically grew up.

So you can keep your Stewarts or your Gordons or your JJs this time around. I think it’s time to go off the grid again.

As in, way off the grid. As in, out-there-in-Alpha-Centuari off the grid.

Here’s a name for you: Kurt Busch.

If Rudd and Elliott were unlikely and Menard a serious head-scratcher, what do you think Busch would be, at this point?

Fickle wouldn’t begin to describe it, if Mr. Anger Mismanagement wound up hoisting the trophy Sunday. He’s 25th in points right now, 321 off the lead. Aside from a third on the road course at Sonoma, he’s got only one other top-10 finish. And in 11 starts at Indy, his best finish was his first one: fifth in 2001.

And, of course, being Kurt Busch, that isn’t even half the story.

The rest is about an apparently incorrigible hard case who wore out his welcome with both Jack Roush and Roger Penske, and now finds himself with an underfunded ride for Phoenix Racing, the only outfit left that would take him on. And for good reason.

At first Roush and then Penske, he threw away quality rides because he simply couldn’t stop berating his crew on the radio or screaming at reporters or getting into ruinous on-track confrontations with fellow drivers.

And so, last December, he and Penske parted company – in large part, it’s been reported, because his sponsor, Shell, told Penske, “He goes or we go.”

Busch promised publicly to reform, after that. Said he needed to get back to having fun in the race car. Said, “I never want to take for granted that it’s a privilege to earn a living as a NASCAR driver.”

Then he went right back to taking it for granted.

A confrontation with Ryan Newman that put him on probation. Another at Dover in which he threatened to beat up Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass, which got him suspended and nearly cost him his ride. Another confrontation – this time at Michigan, fresh off his suspension – with ESPN reporter Marty Smith.

Now he comes to Indy, where, even in the palmy Roush/Penske days, he’s never accomplished much.

Put your money on the man. Stranger things have happened here, after all.

Give me a minute and I’ll think of some.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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