Following weeks of speculation, NASCAR has announced that it has decided to suspend former Cup champion Kurt Busch from competition on an indefinite basis with immediate effect.
Busch has been accused of physically abusing his former partner Patricia Driscoll after an event at Dover International Speedway last September. Earlier this week, a judge in Kent County Family Court in the state of Delaware awarded Driscoll a protection order against Busch requiring him to stay at least 100 yards away from her at all times and not to make any attempt to contact her by any means.
The order also banned Busch from purchasing or possessing firearms and ammunition, and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation for "mental health problems related to anger control and impulse control."
At the time, NASCAR's position was that it would wait for the outcome of the criminal investigation by Dover Police and a decision by the state district attorney's office on whether it would press domestic abuse charges against Busch before making its own call on whether to suspend Busch from competition.
"Until they make some judgements on that investigation, it wouldn't be right of us to just intervene before they've even gotten the investigation completed," NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said when the original allegations surfaced in November. "That's our position. We'll respect their process. It's in their hands."
However a tipping point appeared to have been reached on Friday with the publication of the detailed findings by Family Court Commissioner David Jones on the testimony that had been presented in the matter of the civil protection order which concluded that "it is more likely than not" that Busch had "committed an act of abuse" against Driscoll.
According to ESPN, in his conclusions Jones wrote: "The Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that, on September 26, 2014, Respondent [Busch] committed an act of domestic violence against Petitioner [Driscoll] by manually strangling her by placing his left hand on her throat, while placing his right hand on her chin and face and smashing her head into the wall of his motor home."
Busch had counter-claimed that Driscoll entered his motor home uninvited after the couple had broken up the week before, and that he had cupped her face with his hands while repeatedly asking her to leave, but Jones deemed Driscoll's testimony more credible. "His version of the events is implausible, does not make sense and is unlikely to be true given the totality of the other evidence admitted at trial," Jones concluded.
Busch's testimony that he had been afraid of Driscoll - whom he described as a trained military assassin - was dismissed by Jones. "The assertion that [Busch] would be chastened from assaulting [Driscoll] for fear of the possibility of physical injury is further discredited, in the Court's view, by the fact that [Busch] makes his living risking his life on an almost daily basis by aggressively driving a race car at speeds often approaching 200 miles per hour in close contact with others driving in the same manner, at the same speed."
With such damming detailed findings and conclusions, the sanctioning body clearly felt that it could not hold back any longer on the decision to suspend Busch indefinitely until such time as the allegations of abuse have been resolved.
"NASCAR has indefinitely suspended driver Kurt Busch for actions detrimental to stock car racing following the release today of a supplemental disposition setting forth the findings and conclusions that formed the basis for the Family Court of the State of Delaware's decision on Monday to issue an Order of Protection from Abuse against him," said the official release from NASCAR.
“Given the serious nature of the findings and conclusions made by the Commissioner of the Family Court of the State of Delaware, NASCAR has indefinitely suspended driver Kurt Busch, effective immediately. He will not be allowed to race nor participate in any NASCAR activities until further notice.
"Kurt Busch and his Stewart-Haas Racing team are fully aware of our position and why this decision was made. We will continue to respect the process and timetable of the authorities involved," the statement concluded.
NASCAR took the step after deciding that Busch was in breach of two sections of the NASCAR Sprint Cup rule book, specifically Section 12.1.a (Actions detrimental to stock car racing); and Section 12.8 (Behavioural Penalty). NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell confirmed that per the sport's regulations, Busch can lodge an expedited appeal against the decision to suspend him that will be heard before the start of Sunday's race, and the driver has already confirmed that he exercise that right.
"We assure everyone, including NASCAR, that this action against Mr. Busch will turn out to be a travesty of justice, apparent to all, as this story continues to unfold," said Busch's attorney Rusty Hardin, who also confirmed that they would be appealing the protection order and the associated findings of the Ken County Family Court, adding that they had new evidence to present in the case.
It's not the first time that Busch has been in hot water in the sport. In 2012, he was suspended for one race for threatening a reporter following a race in the Nationwide Series, also at Dover International Speedway.
The year before he had lost his full time Cup ride with Penske Racing after a stormy season that culminated with NASCAR fining Busch $50,000 for directing profanity toward a reporter and making an obscene gesture during the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2005, Roush Fenway Racing also fired Busch after he was cited in an alcohol-related incident in Avondale, Ariz. on a race weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
Busch had been taking part as normal in this week's race activity at Daytona International Speedway and had qualified in 24th place on the grid for Sunday's Daytona 500, the first race in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship and the biggest event of the entire season. Friday's announcement leaves the Stewart-Haas Racing team scrambling to decide how to respond.
"We understand NASCAR's position regarding Kurt Busch and accept their decision," SHR executive vice president Joe Custer said in a statement. "We are in the midst of finalising our plans for the Daytona 500 and we will announce those details as soon as we're ready."
Regan Smith is favourite to step in to the #41 car for this weekend. It remains to be seen whether SHR will continue to keep the entry going over the following weeks while Busch is on suspension, or whether the team will now mothball the car until the situation is resolved.
"We have to be smart and we have to have a plan in place if it doesn't work out for whatever reason," team co-owner Tony Stewart said last week when asked about contingency plans for the event that Busch was suspended from competition over the domestic abuse allegations.
Sponsorship for the car comes from the team's other major co-owner Gene Haas' machine tools company, Haas Automation. It was Haas who made the decision to hire Busch back in 2013 while Stewart was recovering from a serious leg injury sustained in a regional racing accident. Haas is also behind the new Haas F1 Team that will make its grand prix début in the 2016 Formula 1 world championship.
SHR's engine supplier has also moved to cut ties with Busch in the wake of this week's developments. "Chevrolet has suspended its relationship with Kurt Busch indefinitely. We will continue to monitor the events surrounding Mr. Busch and are prepared to take additional action if necessary," said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet's vice president of motorsports and performance vehicles, in a statement released to the media on Friday evening.