Kurt Busch reshapes ‘Outlaw’ image in Double chase

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Kurt Busch is a jerk. He’s A-Rod on four wheels. Lance Armstrong with a Tour de France-sized attitude.

He’s called The Outlaw, fighting and feuding with anyone he feels crossed him on the track - or anywhere else.

Got a beef with Busch? Well, odds are he has a problem with you.

Except for one pesky problem that pokes a hole in the popular narrative that Busch is a bad guy: He might not actually be all that bad.

“I need to tell him how much joy he’s given me through the years,” said Gary Loeck, a NASCAR fan from Ballentine, Minnesota. “And I need to thank him for the Armed Forces Foundation work he’s done. I think he’s misunderstood sometimes.”

Wearing a No. 41 hat, the official Double T-shirt, and holding a beer, Loeck easily blends in with the rest of the 100 or so fans waiting to meet Busch at Kansas Speedway. At least one female fan burst into tears when she meets Busch. Grown men call Busch a hero. Like most drivers, Busch smiles and signs away, each meet-and-greet as routine as the last, even if the fan in front of him remembers forever.

This fan-friendly family man is NASCAR’s Bad Boy?

Of course, on race weekends, he’s the anti-Dale Junior. The kind of driver who famously feuded with his brother, unleashed R-rated meltdowns on the radio and channeled his inner Bob Knight with the media. OK, he hasn’t thrown a chair. But he has attempted a burnout near another driver’s pit stall.

On his best behavior this month trying to earn respect and overdue appreciation from the motorsports world, Busch has been painstakingly rehabbing his image as he chases history by trying to become only the second driver to complete 1,100 total miles by racing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 in the same day.

The same driver who was disciplined for berating reporters opened his private jet to them. He bantered like a seasoned Hollywood heavyweight with Matt Lauer and Al Roker on the “Today Show.” And around the IndyCar paddock, he’s been adopted as one of the boys.

“He certainly has, as part of his reinvention, made himself more likable,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “He’s philanthropic, he does a lot with the Armed Forces Foundation. That’s a side of Kurt that people didn’t see for a long time. Whether it was there or not or whether it’s new, it’s hard to say. But it’s certainly there now.”

What’s Busch really like? Hard to say, though Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe poked fun at Busch’s churlish reputation following Indy 500 qualifying.

“(He’s) normally throwing stuff and cussing a lot,” he said, laughing. “No, no, no. That’s clearly a Kurt of old. The guy that we’ve had has just been awesome.”

The Kurt of old is the one who called Roger Penske “dude” over the radio. The one who tussled with Jimmy Spencer and Tony Stewart. The 35-year-old driver who burned through teams like he was angling for free agency every year, not the cornerstone of a championship organization.

He’s a multiple-time nominee for biggest villain in sports on various year-end lists. Forbes named him in 2013 as one of the 10 most disliked athletes in America. Busch has rarely backed down from his blunt style.

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