By Jerry Bonkowski
I spend a great deal of time scanning wires for photos of NASCAR drivers, seeking the photo that best illustrates the story that I am writing or editing.
The past two weekends – particularly the most recent race weekend at Auto Club Speedway – I came upon a rather interesting observation.
Since he came back from a NASCAR-imposed three-race suspension to start the season, I’d say that at least 90 to 95 percent of photos of Kurt Busch have shown him without a smile on his face.
Big deal, right? But bear with me as I explain further.
In virtually each of those photos, Busch has had nothing short of a stoic and 100 percent focused look on his face. The only time I saw him smile for any appreciable amount of time was when he won the Coors Light Pole Award this past Friday at Fontana.
(But in a sense, he HAD to smile for those photos, given how significant a partner Coors Light is to NASCAR.)
Other than that, Busch has been a picture – and face – of total seriousness. He’s as focused and determined to be as undistracted as I’ve ever seen him in more than a decade on the Sprint Cup circuit.
To put it in the most basic of terms, Busch is all business – and he means business, seeking to recover his career once again from the depths of yet another off-track incident.
Busch’s saga with ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll is arguably the worst thing that’s ever happened to him in his NASCAR career.
Even his embarrassing release by Penske Racing after the 2011 season pales in comparison to the serious allegations of physical abuse that Driscoll leveled against Busch, prompting her to petition for and receive an order of protection against him.
Even though he ultimately did not face criminal charges, Busch likely knows that in the court of public opinion, his name and reputation have taken a significant hit.
The best way – and likely the only way – for Busch to rebound from the Driscoll situation and to get his career back on track is to focus his attention on his racing like he’s never done before.
Which leads me back to what I said about how he barely is seen smiling in photos the last two weeks. To me, that’s not Busch being anti-social or carrying a grudge against Driscoll or NASCAR.
Rather, he’s showing just how focused he is. Nothing else matters but to be the fastest in practice and qualifying – just like he was in all three practice sessions and than sat on the pole at Fontana.
Had it not been for a second late caution and subsequent restart that Brad Keselowski took advantage of with four fresh tires to only two for Busch, the latter likely would have won Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway.
In the whole big scheme of things, Sunday’s race was a learning experience for Busch. He’s gone through quite a few of late – and likely will have even more still to go through going forward.
If he doesn’t want to smile, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to glare straight ahead and see nothing but the checkered flag, that’s all well and good, too.
Honestly, I won’t be surprised if Busch doesn’t really smile a lot again until he finally gets back to victory lane.
If that happens, sure, in the whole big scheme of things it will be just one win.
But for a guy who hasn’t had much to smile about of late, it will prove Busch’s devotion to his focus and his winning effort finally paid off.
And if that doesn’t put a big smile on his face, nothing will.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.