AP Sports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Kurt Busch had another date with a tow truck.
Nah, not to take away one of his wrecked cars.
Busch had some fun with Mater, the rusty, bucktoothed tow truck and cartoon star of "Cars," on a trip this week to Disney World. Busch playfully stretched the back of his collar to act like he was hooked to Mater's cable. With his tongue out, the picture on his Twitter feed was a lighthearted snapshot at Busch's off-track life, chilling with his girlfriend and her son, and smiling alongside Mater and his best friend, Lightning McQueen.
It's the kind of aw-shucks personality so many in NASCAR would like to see from Busch.
Busch's prodigious talent has never been doubted, with 24 career Cup wins and the 2004 championship etched on his resume.
But his prickly personality has cost him major rides, deep-pocketed sponsors, and turned him into a journeyman driver at only 34. His 2013 ride with Furniture Row Racing is his third team in three seasons, and no one would confuse last season's underfunded spin with Phoenix Racing as anything close to his previous heavyweight stops with Jack Roush and Roger Penske.
"Kurt's one of the best drivers out there. I can say that," Phoenix owner James Finch said. "I didn't say he was the best person."
Busch's propensity for wrecking cars -- about two dozen by Finch's count -- his outbursts at the media and dustups with other drivers that landed him on probation were more than Finch could handle. When Busch had the chance to finish last season with Furniture Row, Finch let him walk.
Busch's aggressive driving followed him to Denver-based Furniture Row. He wrecked the No. 78 Chevrolet during Daytona 500 practice last week and was collected in a costly crash in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited the next night. His Furniture Row team was getting assistance from Richard Childress Racing on car repairs to ensure Busch gets to Sunday's Daytona 500, where he qualified a solid 11th.
"I guess he would probably win a lot more races if he wasn't so aggressive, but that's his style," Finch said.
Busch has lived through this cycle before: A new team, a fresh start, a smile on his face and the promise this will be the season he keeps his attitude in check and his cars on the track. Busch beamed at Daytona as he talked about his childhood racing days against his dad and younger brother, Kyle. He stayed at crew chief Todd Berrier's house in Colorado in the offseason and bonded with the pit crew in North Carolina, calling those visits the "best way" to build a team.
After only two top-10s with Phoenix Racing, he had two eighth-place finishes and a ninth over his final three races last season with Furniture Row.
"I think we're a B-plus program right there, right now, as is," Busch said. "What we're able to do with a smaller team is navigate through the waters more quickly."
Busch loved talking about the perks of racing for his new team. Busch said Furniture Row is fully committed to having a strong season with checkered flag expectations. Maybe -- maybe -- this is the season Busch answers his wake-up call and races his way back to an elite level.
"There's a lot of opportunity there and he's got to make the most of it," Kyle Busch said.
For the partnership to really work, Busch knows he has to keep his cool and stay out of the NASCAR hauler. Busch is seeing a sports psychologist to help him with his temper.
"There's so many situations that come up these days, so many hats that you have to wear as a driver, that when you work through those situations, they can teach you things to pick up very easily, to bring out the best in yourself," Busch said. "It's just another tool in the toolbox. It's like a heavier hammer at some points."
Like so many weekend do-it-yourself warriors, Busch must have lost his tools at times last year.
After going to the pits for repairs after a wreck at Darlington, Busch did a burnout through Ryan Newman's box while crew members were over the wall -- an extremely reckless move that could have left someone seriously injured. Afterward, Busch ran into Newman's car on pit road and got into it with several of the angry crewmen.
NASCAR smacked him with probation, then suspended him for one race after a profane meltdown with a reporter was captured on video.
The wins and the trash talk; the championship and the controversy -- it's all part of the complicated Kurt Busch story.
"You go through the thick and the thin and hope you're able to maintain and create a long-lasting opportunity to drive in this series," he said. "Sometimes it comes with baggage, other times you let the rough edges drag and go for those wins. That's what I've done."
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