Phil Allaway · Monday July 8, 2013
The story of Kurt Busch and Furniture Row Racing didn’t just start at Charlotte last fall, when Busch took over for Regan Smith after Smith was tapped to sub for the injured Dale Earnhardt, Jr., or when Busch got to stay in the seat once Earnhardt Jr. came back two weeks later.
Instead, the saga started back at the 2011 Daytona 500. The track had just been repaved and teams were learning about how you could tandem draft for entire races instead of just for a lap or so. As a result, drivers were picking partners as if it were a school dance, or a hoedown. Most of the time, teammates would usually hook up with each other. However, Busch decided not to work with teammate Brad Keselowski. Instead, he decided to work with Smith. The Kurt Busch-Regan Smith duo ended up being one of the strongest tandems all through Speedweeks. Despite a late crash on the backstretch, Busch was able to finish a strong fifth, while Smith was seventh.
The pairing continued at the other three restrictor plate races. The finishes weren’t quite as good, but as long as Busch didn’t crash out (like at Talladega), he was a contender.
Shortly afterwards, Busch’s career went into a tailspin. The 2011 season was ultimately full of incidents on and off the track that called Busch’s character into question. There was the near fight in the pits with NASCAR.com’s Joe Menzer, and the tearing of Jenna Fryer’s Dodge PR sheet during the Chasers’ press conference at Richmond. I’ll fully admit that that was rude, but Fryer wasn’t exactly in a spot where Busch’s actions hurt her work in any way. She could just walk over to the PR shelving and get another sheet. Plus, it was already online as well by that point. Plus, there’s the often unmentioned fact that Busch was going through a divorce from his now ex-wife Eva. That was largely kept out of the public eye until he won at Sonoma and his current girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, greeted him in Victory Lane with a big kiss. A question from Bob Pockrass during his media availability the next weekend in Daytona about Driscoll got him a little upset. At least on that occasion, he came prepared for the eventuality that one of the assembled media would ask him about it, but he definitely wasn’t happy to hear it.
Despite a win at Dover, Busch began a swoon that put him way out of championship contention by Homestead. Then, he had a driveshaft failure just a couple of laps into the race. Most people would be upset at a part failure less than ten miles into a 400 mile race. Busch tried to go to the garage and was blocked by a truck. Busch then flipped the truck driver the bird and went to his stall. You probably remember what happened when Dr. Jerry Punch tried to interview him. It’s got well over 1 million views on YouTube.
Busch agreed to go to anger management and see a sports psychologist in an attempt to learn to better control himself in stressful moments. He also released a statement where he apologized to Dr. Punch for his conduct in Homestead. However, a few weeks later, Shell/Pennzoil gave Roger Penske an ultimatum. Either Busch is gone, or we’re going for a scuttle.
Penske chose to cut ties at that point in December, leaving Busch adrift with essentially no good rides available. Although the circumstances that led to it occurring was substantially different, World Champion Damon Hill leaving Williams right after winning his championship and going to Arrows in 1997 is somewhat similar. Phoenix Racing of 2012 and the Arrows Grand Prix team of 1997 were of similar strength compared to their competition.
Busch considered the 2012 season to be the time where he would put the fun back into racing. That’s how stuff like the “Me” car at Talladega (and similarly, this past weekend’s City Chevrolet in the Subway Firecracker 250) came into being. Busch definitely showed that he hadn’t lost anything in his strife. Ultimately, Busch’s 2012 at Phoenix Racing did resemble Hill’s 1997 at Arrows. There was the one chance to win (Busch at Sonoma, Hill at the Hungaroring), some good runs, and countless mechanical issues.
However, even at Phoenix Racing, he was still having anger issues. He exploded on radio after crashing late in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington, then inexplicably drove through Ryan Newman’s pit under caution (Newman had also spun when Busch did). I still don’t understand that, to be honest. After the race, Busch was angrily confronted by members of Newman’s crew and placed on double probation by NASCAR due to past acts. At Dover, he quasi-threatened Pockrass following the Nationwide race and drew a one-race suspension as a result.
Eventually, he wore out his welcome at Phoenix Racing when he was parked at Talladega after driving off from a crash after removing his helmet and knocking an EMT’s bag off the roof. I understand wanting to get back to the garage so that the team can fix the car, but there’s common sense involved here.
The general opinion when Busch took the gig at Furniture Row was that he was trying to put himself in good position to get a free agent deal for 2014. A “contract year,” if you will. However, the performances that Busch has delivered in the 24 races in the No. 78 would make more than one person wonder why Busch would even bother leaving at all.
Even though Smith did win the Southern 500 at Darlington back in 2011, Furniture Row Racing has never finished highly in points. Since 2006, the team’s owner point finishes are 41st, 42nd, 42nd, 40th (part-time), 29th, 26th, and 24th. While those results do show a team on the upswing, they don’t necessarily show a team that is capable of turning heads.
After 2012 was more or less a failure due to a number of wrecks and mechanical issues, 2013 was designed to be another year to get noticed. He’s done that and more.
Busch has also become calmer. While he does get angry on the radio from time to time today, he no longer lets that anger drive him to do something destructive. His relationship with Driscoll has resulted in him becoming a father figure to Driscoll’s son, a new experience for him. Adults generally have to be pretty mature in order to be a positive influence on a young child’s development, and it appears that Busch is up to that.
Furniture Row Racing’s location in Denver, Colorado is admittedly not necessarily the best for team unity. Smith actually moved himself and his now-wife Megan out to Colorado in order to be closer to the team and make periodic visits to the shop. Busch is still East Coast-based, which makes things a little harder. He’s still involved with the team meetings at the shop, even if he can’t be there. TNT’s recent All-Access feature showed Busch calling into a team meeting at the shop. It looked like he was using Skype to participate. Such a scenario might frustrate a lesser driver, but Busch takes it in stride.
The good results for Busch in the No. 78 started almost immediately. After a couple of adjustment weekends, Busch ended 2012 with three consecutive eighth-place finishes.
This season, Busch had a rough start, but has recovered nicely. Even before the most recent spate of good runs, Busch had already pushed Furniture Row Racing to the highest point that they had ever been. Saturday night’s sixth-place finish moved Busch and the No. 78 team into the top-10 in points. For Furniture Row Racing, this is a first for any time in the season past March.
Busch already has four top-5 finishes, which is more than the team had ever collected in their eight previous seasons competing in the Cup Series. Even though he has won yet, Busch is on pace to equal the performance that he put up in 2011 while still driving for Penske Racing. With Penske Racing, Busch was part of a multi-car team that had, for lack of better words, the finer things in life. At Furniture Row, Busch is with a smaller, single-car operation that, while still running good equipment, may not have the latest and greatest. One example of this is the fact that they do not run the latest version of the Koolbox. Instead, they are one generation behind. Reasoning: The team prefers having a proven piece and doesn’t want to do Koolbox’s R&D for them. Plus, it saves the team a little money.
Busch’s original plan at Furniture Row Racing was to do as well as he possibly could in order to attract another team for 2014, perhaps Richard Childress Racing, which Furniture Row Racing has a strong alliance with. However, with Jeff Burton and Paul Menard already re-signed to contracts and the high likelihood that Austin Dillon could take over for Kevin Harvick in the No. 29 (likely to be renumbered back to No. 3), Busch may be better served to stay at Furniture Row for the foreseeable future.
Would staying at Furniture Row for 2014 and beyond be a bad move for Busch? I don’t believe so. Busch has a strong rapport with crew chief Todd Berrier, appears to be well-liked within the team, and has the organization reaching for the stars. Why not stay? It’s unlikely that Busch could find a better situation with the other full-time rides that are expected to be available. Regardless of what happens from here on out, Busch’s success and career renaissance from the brink is one of the best stories that has come out of the first half of the 2013 season.
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