The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Kurt Busch by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday December 20, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Kurt Busch

Thomas Bowles · Thursday December 20, 2012

 

2012 Rides: No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet (29 starts), No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet (six starts)
2012 Primary Sponsors: At Phoenix Racing: HendrickCars.com (two races), ME / Armed Forces Foundation (one race), Tag Heuer (Bud Shootout), Monster Energy (All-Star Race), Phoenix Construction and/or unsponsored in most others

At Furniture Row: Furniture Row Mattresses / Stores

2012 Owners: James Finch (Phoenix), Barney Visser (FRR)
2012 Crew Chiefs: Nick Harrison (Phoenix), Todd Berrier (FRR)

Kurt Busch

Stats: 35 races, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 5 top 10s, 6 DNFs, 0 poles, 25th in points.

Best Finish: Third – Sonoma.
Average Finish: 23.2.
Average Start: 22.2.

2012 Team Ranking: 1st of 1. Both outfits Busch drove for in 2012 were single-car teams.

High Point: The final six races with Furniture Row. Some might say Sonoma was the high point for this former Cup champion, perhaps the only race in 2012 he had a realistic chance to win driving the No. 51 Phoenix Chevy. But I look at it differently. Busch went to Phoenix to either create a championship team out of an underdog outfit, long-term or, in what was the more likely scenario use it as a stepping stone for career rebuilding. We see it all the time in sports; like the college coach who makes a major misstep (Bobby Petrino), gets fired and then jumps to a lower-end Division I school to earn his way back. But those stories don’t often have a happy ending. For Busch, especially after a one-race suspension for bad behavior following the Dover race in June whether or not he’d ever move back in the right direction was a question mark.

Enter Barney Visser and Furniture Row Racing, willing to take a risk on a driver who, with just two top-10 finishes in dated equipment hadn’t exactly re-proven himself. Busch reacted strongly, making the most of this new opportunity while forming instant chemistry with crew chief Todd Berrier. While most didn’t notice, they ended the year with three straight top-10 finishes, and in all honesty could have gotten to five (wrecks ruined things at Kansas and Martinsville, respectively). Busch took a team that had been moderately competitive, put it side-by-side with the multi-car operations and served notice he still has the talent to run well.

Low Point: Talladega – Fall. Busch’s last race with Phoenix Racing was the perfect microcosm of his season with the team. After leading six laps, around the halfway point and remaining at or near the front of the lead draft Busch looked to be a main contender at a track where Phoenix equipment was on par with the top cars in the field. But shortly thereafter, a mechanical problem — running out of gas — left Busch slowing out of Turn 2 in front of traffic. Slammed from behind by Jamie McMurray, the No. 51 took a wild ride down the backstretch and hit the inside wall hard.

That’s when the bizarre behavior, so often the hallmark of Busch’s tenure in the Cup Series broke out. With the car seemingly destroyed, safety workers descended upon the scene, put their bag on top of the roof of the car and prepared to extricate the driver. Instead, Busch found the engine would run, so he took off — leaving a startled worker at his driver’s side window and the bag of medical equipment scattered along the backstretch. When asked for an explanation, he said, “It’s kind of the way our year went. We had all the potential in the world — we could just never pull it together for 500 miles.”

But Kurt, what about your bizarre behavior? “That’s the competitor in me,” he said when pressed. “That’s what’s misconstrued.” It was an answer, for a strange situation that appeared to satisfy no one — but NASCAR chose not to penalize Busch with a suspension for the incident. Phoenix, though let their feelings be heard in a different way: they slapped a smiley face on the hood for their first race apart from the driver the following week.

Summary: After getting let go late in the 2011 offseason, from Penske Racing following a series of off-track incidents Busch’s options were few and far between. He wound up settling for a single-car effort at Phoenix Racing, a team with Hendrick connections but whose equipment, personnel, and funding were limited compared to the big dogs Busch had competed with for years. On the side, he chose to pair up with brother Kyle and run some races in the Nationwide Series, driving for his brother’s No. 54 operation. That venture proved somewhat successful, a Richmond win and several strong runs reminding everyone, throughout 2012 this former Cup Series champ could still be competitive.

For much of the year, it was hard to see that running the No. 51. With two wrecks in the first three races, along with totaling two additional cars in Daytona Phoenix Racing started the year working from behind. They never really caught up, creating a sense of friction between driver and crew as the equipment remaining was just never capable of running at speed most weeks. Forced to fight for a 25th-place finish, Busch countless times would drive the car past its limits, get overaggressive and wind up in the wall. The few times the team had it right, like on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega bad luck would bite them before they had a chance to build momentum.

The off-track problems didn’t stop, either. A postrace incident, this June in Dover where Busch reacted poorly to media member Bob Pockrass’ questioning led to a one-race suspension from NASCAR. That nearly caused a release from Phoenix, but owner James Finch, based on pleas from the team itself chose to give Busch a second chance. Briefly, they rallied, a third-place run at Sonoma in the summer followed by a respectable 19th at Kentucky. Daytona came around, that July and the team was hoping to put itself in position for success; instead, a wreck left them back at square one. Driver and team, during a summer of complaints and catastrophe slowly wore out their welcome for each other.

By Fall, it was clear Busch’s future would not be with Phoenix, and vice versa as a number of high-profile rides started opening up. However, as sponsors scoffed at Busch’s history of contentious behavior it looked for awhile that he might even start 2013 on the sidelines, or even on brother Kyle’s Nationwide team. That’s when Furniture Row came in, swooped up the driver and promised him better equipment, quality support from Richard Childress Racing and a hungry crew chief in Todd Berrier. The final six races left a squeaky clean impression: top-tier performances, no public incidents, everyone saying all the right things. Busch put out a documentary on SPEED, Outlaw: The Kurt Busch Story in which he tried to explain / rebuild his image problem. Only time will tell how much he’s succeeded there, but considering the tumultuous season in terrible equipment you’ve got to look at the final body of work, the new ride and consider 2012 a win for Busch.

Off-Track News: Busch and new girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll remained active in raising funds for the Armed Forces Foundation. The organization, designed to provide comfort and support to military personnel and their families partnered with Busch as he visited wounded servicemen, veterans in need and appeared publicly in support of their cause. The AFF even sponsored the driver for a race at one point, buoyed by the partnership of such a well-known athlete.

2013 Outlook: Strong. Busch and Berrier showed they were a strong driver / crew chief pairing at the end of 2012. Richard Childress equipment, plus engine support will only buoy this program further in 2013, giving them several opportunities to contend for victories. Kevin Harvick’s pending exit from the No. 29 Chevy at RCR also opens up a 2014 opportunity for Busch. Childress, who is fond of the driver will be watching from the sidelines, looking to see if Busch can improve on and off-track performance enough to be given one final shot at a top-tier ride. The motivation is there — the bigger question for Busch will be if the maturity, to keep himself out of potential damaging situations will come along with it.

2011 Frontstretch.com Grade: C.
2012 Grade: C+.

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