CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kurt Busch is happy, as happy as he's been on and off the racetrack in a long time -- maybe ever.
There is a noticeable balance to his life that makes one believe he can return to the top of the Sprint Cup world, as he was when he won the championship in 2004 at Roush Fenway Racing.
There is the semblance of an inner peace that makes you believe he won't self-destruct -- or shoot himself in the foot, as he says repeatedly in the 2012 documentary "Kurt Busch: The Outlaw" -- as he did two years ago when a late-season outburst led to his split with Penske Racing.
As he's done countless times since entering NASCAR's top series full time in 2001.
"Yeah, personal side is personal side," Busch says. "Racing is what we're here talking about. The personal life, if you're happy there, that breeds better opportunities for success on the racetrack. I feel like I'm in a great place."
But there still is a bit of distrust in his voice as we sit to discuss the differences we've had, the differences he's had with other media, his new ride at Furniture Row Racing after a year with Phoenix Racing and his general outlook on life.
There still is a part of Busch that feels the media has fabricated a negative image of him that some in the general public never will get past, that gives a false impression that hides what he believes he's truly all about, that makes him a target each year for Forbes' most-disliked-athletes list.
There still is a part of Busch that makes him defensive even when you're not attacking him, that makes him withdraw before you get to know what's really on his mind.
That's because he cares what people think about him, perhaps more than his brother, Kyle -- who wears NASCAR's black hat as well -- perhaps way more than any of us may realize.
Maybe too much.
"He does care too much," says girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. "I told him, 'If you really don't like these people, what do you care about what they say about you?' Hopefully, that's starting to resonate."
"It bothers him that a lot of people think he's a jerk when he's not," Driscoll continues. "He just has a hard time sometimes when he's in his racing mode and his mind is focused on that. He gets pretty irritable."
That's where Driscoll steps in and offers perspective, balance.
"Tell him to shut up," she says with a laugh. "But he has to be able to listen to somebody to tell him, 'Hey, you're out of line. Yes, you're intense and this is frustrating, but it's not the end of the world.' "
Driscoll is a big reason for Busch's happiness, for that sense of balance. They aren't married, but they live and travel like a married couple. Busch calls Driscoll's son, Houston, his stepson. They are so close that Busch gave the 8-year-old the go-kart that Busch's dad taught him how to drive and a miniature firesuit like the one he wears.
"I don't let him use the throttle and brake yet," Busch says. "Just the steering."
The tone is soft, different than when the conversation is about racing and the perception of him and his brother.
"We're regular people just like everybody else," Busch says. "When we jump into our element of performance, we're a different person. We want to perform and we have blinders on. The fabric of the sport, the way anything is in Hollywood or with politicians in D.C., you're on call 24 hours a day."
Driscoll helps Busch deal with that. They met a few years ago at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as Busch's first marriage was falling apart. Driscoll, the president and CEO of the Armed Forces Foundation, didn't know much about the man she would soon call the love of her life.
"I'd heard the Busch brothers were jerks," she says. "Then when I met him he was an awesome guy. You see guys who sign autographs and get the heck out of there. This was a guy who was spending time with them and wanting to know their story and wanting to help out.
"That blew me away from the beginning."
Spending time with the troops has become therapeutic for Busch. It gives him a new perspective that what he does on the track isn't life or death, as he often makes it.
That gets reinforced by Busch's new team owner, Barney Visser, who volunteered for the Vietnam War and served as a paratrooper for the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
"He's kind of taken me under his wing as an adopted son," Busch says. "He knows I'm not perfect."
Busch is so happy in his new life and organization -- which buys its engines and technology from Richard Childress Racing -- that he insists remaining there after the 2013 season is a strong option.
Strong words from a top-tier driver who in a perfect world would be with a top-tier organization.
"[Penske] wasn't the right fit for him," Driscoll says. "They are very corporate, structured. Kurt is not a PowerPoint kind of guy. This has been a perfect match, the way they operate, the way they talk, just the personalities."
She pauses, then reinforces the obvious.
"It's really nice," she says. "He just seems really happy in life in general."
Late-night phone calls and lateral moves?
It is 11:36 p.m., the night before Busch wins the July Nationwide Series race at Daytona for underdog Phoenix Racing, when my phone rings.
It is Busch. He leaves a message that makes it obvious he is bothered by the reference to the troubles he might have luring sponsors as the No. 2 free agent in NASCAR behind Matt Kenseth.
It didn't matter that Busch was referred to as one of the top drivers in the garage.
"He takes that as a slam of, 'But what about the other good sides of me?' " Driscoll says. "I point out that this article is 99 percent good, but he goes, 'The 1 percent bad, that is the only thing people focus on.' "
Driscoll has pushed Busch to stop reading so he stops putting himself in these positions. Sometimes when Busch gets upset, she'll say, "Are we reading the same story? What the hell are you mad about in it?"
"He really has tried to stop," she says. "It's hard. If he had completely stopped life would be a lot better."
Again, Busch cares, so he wants to know what people are saying, not just about him, but the sport in general.
Busch obviously read after it was announced he was leaving Phoenix Racing for Furniture Row. He took offense that some called it a lateral move going from one single-car team to another. He said things that seemed less than grateful -- even though he was -- for the opportunity Phoenix Racing gave him after the split with Penske.
"Well, hell, you know Kurt," Phoenix Racing owner James Finch says. "Sometimes there's two of him."
After Busch drove the final six races for Furniture Row, it became obvious this wasn't a lateral move. He finished with three straight top-10s, two more than he had in the first 30 races with Phoenix Racing and two more than Regan Smith had before being replaced.
"If you look at driving ability, he's certainly one of the top drivers," Penske says of Busch. "Unfortunately, he gets a wheel in the dirt and that hurt him with us. It's hurt him in other situations.
"The Furniture Row guys are a good team. I hope through the last 24 months of ups and downs that Kurt is maturing and he'll take that experience and take it where he can be a contender."
The pieces are in place. The Denver-based team pays for engineering support from RCR. Employees talk and share notes with RCR on a daily basis. RCR owner Richard Childress refers to the No. 78 car as though it is his fourth team.
It wasn't that way at Phoenix, where Busch often got his Hendrick Motorsports chassis from the development department. Sometimes, such as the Sonoma car he finished third in, he got a car that was several years old.
He certainly didn't get the notes he does now.
"Yeah, it was tough," Busch says of Phoenix Racing. "We pieced together some of the cars. Finch gave us the engines and the opportunity, but the new stuff wasn't brought in like they had talked about.
"But Furniture Row is a bona fide program."
Now that it has a bona fide champion behind the wheel, the Chase is a realistic goal.
As long as
"The future is in one position, in his hands," Penske says of Busch. "And he's got to decide what he wants to do with it."
The offseason has been good for Busch. He and Driscoll spent time in January at the Barrett-Jackson collector car show in Scottsdale, Ariz., auctioning off a custom 1969 Ford Bronco for charity.
There weren't all the sponsor appearances and commercial shoots that often make the offseason seem busier than the season. You can do that when your owner's company is the sponsor and he tells you to get away and relax.
"We tried to keep Kurt as work-free as possible," general manager Joe Garone says.
Garone understands there could come a time when things don't go well on the track, that the Busch he's heard about with other organizations could resurface.
But he's not concerned. He's seen nothing but good things from his driver, from taking crew members out to dinner to helping out with menial tasks in the garage.
Racing is what we're here talking about. The personal life, if you're happy there, that breeds better opportunities for success on the racetrack. I feel like I'm in a great place.
”-- Kurt Busch
It's a side of Busch that often gets overshadowed by the outbursts that land him in NASCAR's hauler.
"Looking at where Kurt is right now, his focus on driving and his relaxed state he's just gone through these last couple of months in his personality I can see the difference in it from the end of last season until now," Garone says.
If that changes, it's because Busch cares so much. He is a perfectionist at the track, a trait he got from his father. When he finishes a race, even if he wins, he typically goes home and watches the replay.
"I sit there and go, 'Enjoy the moment,' " Driscoll says. "But that's not him. That's not how he was raised. His dad is a very hard guy. You could win and be almost perfect, but he's going to tell you where you missed."
Perfectionists often are misunderstood. They often are characterized in negative ways because they are obsessed with being the best.
Busch is a perfectionist.
"That's a problem he has, really looking at himself and his racing critically and knowing he could do it better," Driscoll says.
Busch also is ready to win again. He may not like that Forbes once again ranked him on the most-disliked-athletes list, that the magazine referred to him as "hot-tempered and arrogant."
But as he said in the documentary: "I am done fighting the battle. My image is what it is."
Maybe this new happy state is the first step toward that.
"We have a good relationship, good balance," Driscoll says. "He needs somebody who is strong and will put him in his box, and so do I. He really is in a good place."