Apologetic Kyle Busch pays steep price

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Kyle Busch entered the media center at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday wearing a somber face and a blue dress shirt without the M&M patches we are accustomed to seeing -- or patches from any other sponsor.

The plain shirt is a big deal.

Sponsors, you see, are everything in this world. If you cross the line and embarrass one, your world can crumble no matter how talented you are. No driver, as we've been reminded time and time again since Busch intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck series race at Texas Motor Speedway, is bigger in NASCAR than the person paying the bills.

That we're all still talking about Busch and his behavioral issues also is a big deal.

It doesn't feel right.

We should be talking about the Chase in which Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are separated by three points with two races remaining. We should be talking about the newly repaved track at PIR that has drivers worried in the way they typically do for a Talladega weekend.

But we're not. The focus is on Busch.

Which brings us back to the media center at PIR, where Busch joined team owner Joe Gibbs to apologize once again and proclaim how thankful he was that Joe Gibbs Racing allowed him to compete in the final two races with Interstate Batteries on his car instead of M&Ms.

Hopefully, this will be the end of Busch's drama and we can get on with what could be the most thrilling Chase finale ever. It won't be the end of sponsors and image ruling the NASCAR world.

Few know that better than the top two contenders in the Chase. Edwards is as media savvy as they come, going out of his way to put on the best face for his sponsor and the sport.

He learned a few years ago at Martinsville Speedway, where he was caught on television pulling a punch at Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, how his actions affect his image and his sponsors.

Stewart understands that even better. He was fined $50,000 by sponsor Home Depot in 2002 and forced to take anger management therapy after a physical confrontation with a photographer during his time driving the No. 20 for JGR.

Image is everything to a sponsor. A negative light on it can tear down legends, as we've seen in other sports, and threaten the career of a super talent such as Busch.

Fortunately for Busch, he's getting a second chance -- or a third, fourth or fifth, depending on how you look at it. He has a chance to grow and learn from what happened, which will enable him to become the championship driver most believe he one day will be.

"First of all, it would be a huge loss to the sport if Kyle Busch is not out there," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said Friday. "He is extremely talented, and he's entertaining.

"If this doesn't teach him the ultimate lesson, then nothing will."

What happened to Busch wasn't just a reminder to him on the importance of image and sponsors, it was a reminder for the entire garage. It was a reminder that no matter how great the racing is on the track, how tight the points battle is, the people writing the checks are who make it all possible.

If they go away, the sport will.

"Sometimes we think we're bigger than the sport and bigger than our sponsors, and we're not," Gordon said. "That's very, very clear, and in this instance Kyle's emotions just got the best of him, and that's the thing that I think is the line here.

"Kyle is going to have to learn to control those emotions in those moments or it will cost him his sponsor and ultimately will cost him his ride. I can tell you who is going to come first. It's going to be the sponsor, especially when it's a sponsor the caliber of M&M Mars."

In other sports, you typically get rid of the coach before the players. In racing, you get rid of the crew chief and driver before the sponsor.

"Our sport is different than a lot of other pro sports because we're directly accountable to our sponsors," said Stewart, as he announced a partnership with Outback Steakhouse for Ryan Newman's car next season. "It's 43 teams out there racing, so you have that intensity, you have that passion.

"It's sometimes hard to put it in your pocket when we need to and let it out at a later time."

When the line is crossed, as we saw with Busch, Stewart said, "It's a good reality check for everybody."

"A lot of times, things get kind of off center until something happens that brings it back," Stewart said. "This is that situation that reminds all of us of what's on the line and how important it is to those companies to protect their image and do a good job and accomplish what their goals are."

That's why drivers seem to spend more time thanking their sponsors when they climb out of their car in Victory Lane than they do talking about the win or a championship.

"Obviously, coming into the sport as a sponsor, there's options," said Mike Kappitt, the chief marketing officer at Outback Steakhouse. "We went through a very thoughtful process on who we would team up with. It really came down to trust in partnership."

That's what made Busch's actions so reprehensible to Mars Inc. The company trusted Busch to make smart decisions and not embarrass it.

Busch let the company down, which in the process let down everybody in his organization who takes pride in image. Now he's paying the price, from being parked for two races last weekend at Texas to being fined by NASCAR to other possible sanctions he faces at JGR to feeling the need to offer Hornaday a job with his Truck team.

"You've got to be smart," Busch said. "I certainly was not smart in my actions [wrecking Hornaday]."

So here we are still talking about Busch when there are so many more issues to consider, more important things taking place.

"Its a question of the times," Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski said. "It's a question of what's important to us. Obviously, Kyle is talented enough and good enough in general to warrant conversation even when he's not doing something on the track.

"That's what this all says."

What this says is that no athlete is bigger than the sport.

It says Busch isn't bigger than NASCAR.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.