Kurt Busch led 50 laps, finished in the top 10 and left Texas Motor Speedway fifth in Sprint Cup points Saturday night. Most would be thrilled with that type of outstanding effort across the board one-quarter of the way through 2011’s NASCAR regular season.
Busch? It would have taken an Act of God for him to crack a smile.
“We led laps when we were off-sequence, but overall a hard fought battle to get the car dialed in once again,” was the official party line from Busch post-race. “It’s tough. We want to compete for top 5s and wins and we’re only getting top 10s right now.”
But an exchange over the No. 22 team’s radio on lap 138 offered insight into what was more than an example of a driver and team exhausting themselves through strategy to steal a top-10 result. For Kurt Busch, the story that has played out year after year during his tenure at Penske Racing seems to finally be catching up to him.
As he and teammate Brad Keselowski were both fading on a two-tire strategy during that run, freefalling down the running order, the frustrated veteran driver of the duo couldn’t keep quiet. Venting his frustration, Busch chided, “I’m tired of working this hard. Every single race I’m driving over my head.”
There’s no doubt that pushing an ill-handling car to the brink all night long, relying on an alternate pit strategy to keep his No. 22 up front and in position to finish among lead cars that were faster clearly bothered Busch. Not having raw speed was an issue not just for a run, but for 500 miles on Saturday night with an uphill climb that became an exhausting proposition; after all, Busch was doing it, gaining track position through pit strategy only to lose it from lap 33 onward.
But in terms of driving over his head? Busch has been doing just that for years. No, he’s not getting himself into trouble on the track; instead, the driver’s been functioning as a senior member within a Penske Racing camp that has never created the team situation around him that the 2004 champion is desperately in need of.
Fact is, the No. 22 team was lost for much of Saturday night, and both Busch and crew chief Steve Addington were on an island. What was different this evening is that it finally seemed to be getting to Busch.
Kurt’s move to Penske Racing was one of great tumult. Released from Roush Racing two races early in 2005, following an ugly run-in with the Maricopa County sheriff’s office while at the Phoenix International Raceway, Busch transferred into his new role in disarray. Penske’s third car had folded after only two seasons, losing Kodak sponsorship after the No. 77 ride chewed up and spat out proven Truck Series winners in Brendan Gaughan and Travis Kvapil. More notably, though, Rusty Wallace had retired after years of feuding with teammate Ryan Newman. The result became No. 2 and No. 12 cars that were supposedly “separate but equal:” two teams operating under the same organization name but nothing more.
Some said the icy divide began because Newman, with his engineering background and stubborn personality, was a bad fit with 1989 Cup champion Wallace. Others allege it’s because Wallace was a terrible teammate, one that drove Jeremy Mayfield out of the same No. 12 ride that Newman took over and one that would blab to anyone who would listen in the garage what Penske was doing with their setups. That’s not to mention, of course, the team’s aerodynamic struggles. Those Dodges were plagued with aero push to the point that Ryan Newman’s team had reverted back to running 2004 model noses, trying to baseline their intermediate track setups after a year of falling precious tenths of a second behind the curve.
Whatever the situation, the end result was clear: there was no model for teamwork that existed when Busch walked through the door. Considering he left Roush Racing, who had won two of the last three Cup titles (one of which involved Busch), it seemed a clear indication the grass _wasn’t_ greener on the other side. The results, at first, seemed to verify such public turmoil; in 2006, Busch won fewer than three races for the first time since his rookie season, slumping toward his worst points finish (16th) since that rookie campaign in 2001.
2007 marked considerable progress for the Penske camp, with Busch making the Chase and Newman winning the best of the rest crown for highest finishing driver shut out of the postseason. And when Busch pushed Newman to the 2008 Daytona 500 trophy, giving Penske their first one-two finish in Cup racing, it appeared that it was all systems go for the IndyCar powerhouse to make a two-pronged assault on NASCAR’s biggest prize.
But those hopes derailed in a hurry. With CoT setups that quickly went stale and the distraction of Newman shopping for a new ride, eventually landing with Stewart-Haas Racing behind the scenes the No. 12 car dropped off the map. Couple that with a third car in Sam Hornish, Jr. that was busy trying to make races, much less offer constructive feedback, and Busch was dragged down with distractions; in the end, the No. 2 team missed the Chase, finding Victory Lane only once.
2009 was more of the same in terms of drama. With Newman now out of the No. 12 car, Kurt Busch was suddenly the senior driver in the Penske camp. And with two underperforming teammates – an open-wheeler trying to learn stock cars on the sport’s premier level and a test driver in David Stremme who ended up 15 feet over his head trying to bring the No. 12 back up to speed – Busch could best be described as on an island. He fought through it; the No. 2 team found Victory Lane twice, made the Chase and garnered Busch 21 top-10 finishes, a mark he only equaled during his 2004 championship season. In fact, Kurt Busch delivered a performance few on this circuit could; running with a de facto single car team, he still rallied enough to make the Chase.
2010 was another year on that same island, and another unheralded piece of driving that took a backseat to his loudmouth brother… even his new teammate. Busch now found himself matched up with the still-learning Hornish and Brad Keselowski, whose move to Penske Racing came with conditions not for the backmarker Cup car he was taking over but that Penske field him in a Nationwide Series ride full-time. So while Brad laid waste to the minor leagues all year long, his Cup car ran like it had an anchor attached, leaving Busch to again pull the weight for Penske’s Cup side of the garage. The postseason seemed like a virtual impossibility at times; yet despite being surrounded by two of the slowest, if not the slowest, entries fielded by a major operation, Busch won twice and made the Chase again.
Now fast forward to Texas this Saturday night. Busch’s only teammate is the same Keselowski, who again is insisting on a full Nationwide schedule in addition to still trying to improve what is a struggling Cup team (his No. 2 squad has only one lead lap finish in 2011 while sitting 22nd in points). And even more notable, this year Penske is the only Dodge program out there (Robby Gordon Motorsports is running a Dodge, but with Penske support) meaning the island that Busch has been on for years has only gotten more desolate.
Until now, Busch has found a way to make that work. Considering the teammate turmoil, the internal changes, the media criticism, virtually everything he has endured since making the move to Penske in 2006 the fact that he’s won eight races and made three Chases is nothing short of remarkable. It blows away the results of every other driver to take the wheel of a Penske ride in that timeframe, showcasing the remarkable skill that propelled him towards a championship with Roush in the first place.
But sooner or later, the reality of today’s Cup racing has to set in. The days of the single car team are over. Stories like Trevor Bayne’s unlikely Daytona 500 triumph get people in the media center applauding for a reason… they’re a big, and rare, freaking deal. And they’re also risky, because if a single-car team gets lost these days, without testing and without teammates, it’s a thick and nearly impossible woods to climb out of.
That’s where we’re at with the No. 22, the numbers that give that car a cushion in the standings nothing more than an optical illusion. Running outside the top 10 at Fontana and Martinsville, both cars suffered from extreme handling issues that had its driver insulting his crew chief and team on the radio like a drunken sailor. Despite all the consistency they’ve shown, they haven’t crossed the line higher than seventh in a non-restrictor plate race this season; and on the intermediates, the sport’s bread and butter they’ve done no better than ninth.
Reality is, Kurt Busch and Steve Addington both seem to be aware of just how close to the edge of being lost they were teetering on this weekend. As Addington remarked after the checkered flag, “I didn’t think we would be that much off to start the race.” Translation: They were surprised at how far off they were.
Surprises like that do not bode well for a driver who’s light years ahead of his teammate and without any major help across his manufacturer’s camp. For Kurt Busch to keep snagging these top-10 finishes and stay in Chase contention, he’s going to be driving over his head a lot in 2011.
Based on Saturday night, that’s one taxing proposition.
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