The last time Kurt Busch was in the Valley for a NASCAR Nextel Cup race, he ranted, screamed and argued with Maricopa County sheriff's deputies following a traffic stop near Phoenix International Raceway.
This time around, Busch, at PIR for Busch Series and Nextel Cup races this weekend, toned it down a bit and had a friendly chat with hundreds of young baseball players Wednesday night, which completed his community service for his Nov. 11 transgression.
“That definitely is a breath of fresh air to have that (community service) complete and have it done in such a short amount of time,“ Busch said Thursday at PIR.
Two nights before last fall's Checker Auto Parts 500, Busch was pulled over by deputies, suspected of drunken driving (he passed breath tests) and ticketed for reckless driving.
Roush Racing officials and Busch's sponsors, upset with his behavior, dumped their driver of the No. 97 Ford for the rest of the season prior to the Phoenix race.
Busch plea-bargained the charges in February to a speeding ticket and paid a $580 fine with 50 hours of community service owed.
With the community service hours to complete by next February, Busch went to work Tuesday in Phoenix with a fundraiser at Chase Field that included throwing out the ceremonial pitch at a Diamondbacks-San Francisco Giants game.
On Wednesday, he filmed a public service announcement with Sheriff Joe Arpaio at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving near Chandler. The message: Keep dangerous driving off the streets.
The PSA spots are expected to begin airing in May or June. Each time the PSA runs, Busch is credited with community service time.
But perhaps the crowning moment in Busch's attempts to repair his sullied public image in Maricopa County came Wednesday night at Friendship Park in Avondale.
Busch sat on the tailgate of a pickup between two of the park's baseball fields, autographing baseball cap after baseball cap, surrounded by a pack of adoring kids.
He'd thrown out the ceremonial first pitch moments earlier that night on one of the park's baseball fields used by the Westside Cal Ripken Babe Ruth League.
The Avondale-area kids also were the beneficiaries of $10,000 worth of bats, balls, gloves, catcher's equipment and helmets Busch donated to the league's 30 teams.
“He probably made 375 to 400 new fans last night among the kids,” said Tom Roberts, a spokesman for Penske Racing South, owners of Busch's No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.
“Since last December, we've been putting this together to make an impact in children's youth sports, which happened with the Westside Recreational Program,” Busch said.
Busch seemed energized by the visit with the kids.
“Winning the championship in (2004), kids recognize me when I'm out and about,” he said. “If I could have just one kid go, ‘Man, that was my guy.’ To be able to represent him, going, you know, ‘I've always wanted to race cars, I've always looked up to Kurt. He's the guy I want to follow.’ If I could have just one kid root for me, then that's the motive to go out there and do these types of things.”
Busch hit a home run with the supervising adults as well as the kids at Friendship Park.
Sam Garcia, who works with the young baseball players, had heard the stories of that NASCAR driver who ran afoul with sheriff's deputies last fall.
But after Wednesday night's visit from Busch?
“We have a newfound respect for that young man,” Garcia said.
Busch stayed and signed autographs and posed for pictures with each kid, Garcia said.
“This guy was awesome. The kids swarmed him out there. I know he was in trouble, but what he did for the kids was above and beyond what he had to do.”
Roy McCauley, Busch's crew chief, will miss Saturday's Subway Fresh 500 after having surgery on Tuesday to remove blockage in an artery, team officials said. McCauley, 36, had suffered chest pains on Monday. Matt Gimbel, Busch's crew chief for his Busch Series car, will replace McCauley.
PIR NASCAR weekend
Where: Phoenix International Raceway