NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Champion, Interrupted: Kurt Busch’s Phoenix Racing Tenure

Kurt Busch’s 29-race tenure with Phoenix Racing ended with a bang, though it’s probably not the kind of noise Busch and owner James Finch hoped to make.

After leading six laps and riding around at the front of the pack in the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Busch slowed on the track — in front of nearly the entire field, no less — claiming he was out of fuel. One spin and contact with the inside wall later, his No. 51 Chevrolet was rendered pretty much useless, though that didn’t stop him from driving away from safety crews, a piece of their equipment still sitting atop his car and later falling to the racing surface.

The move earned the Las Vegas native an early exit via a NASCAR parking, even though his car wasn’t going to perform too well in the draft anyway with a crumpled rear end.

His 39th-place finish caps a mostly unspectacular Phoenix Racing campaign for Busch, who moves to Furniture Row Racing’s No. 78 starting this weekend at Charlotte, replacing Regan Smith (who, as fate would have it, moves to Busch’s old ride, Phoenix’s No. 51, this week).


While Kurt Busch’s tenure at Phoenix racing had some highlights, like running up front at Sonoma…

The final tally: in 29 races (as you’ll recall, Busch was parked for the June Pocono event and replaced by David Reutimann), the 2004 series champion scored no wins, one top-5 finish and two top-10s, his best result a third at Sonoma after starting eighth. His average start was 22.7 (a best of sixth) and he secured an average finish of 25th. He led 19 laps–nearly a third coming in his final race with the team. He was running at the finish 23 races out of 29 (six DNFs), but was only on the lead lap for six of those races. His current spot in points is 26th, a placing that might have changed by one position had he not missed an event (surpassing Mark Martin, who’s raced 10 fewer times in 2012).

Busch’s season is on track to be his worst since his rookie season of 2001 — and even then he performed better. In 35 races that year (he failed to qualify for one), he finished in the top five three times and tallied six top-10 finishes.

But OK, you say, not so fast. Don’t knock Kurt Busch too much–it’s not as though he’s a bad driver. He’s merely in poor equipment, which has led to his less-than-stellar season.

Well, I’m certainly not one to call Phoenix Racing equipment top-of-the-line. Can anyone? The team is generally only majorly competitive at the restrictor plate tracks and has been since 2002, when Geoff Bodine drove the No. 09 to a third and a 10th at Daytona. Its other triumphs are few and far between–for instance, occasional success at road courses, though that can often be chalked up to a ringer in the ride. At one of the circuit’s “usual” tracks (i.e. basically everywhere else), Phoenix Racing is rarely more than 25th- to 35th-place equipment.

And Busch has often taken said equipment and done a little more with it. Top-20 finishes at many of the tracks early in 2012 come to mind.

But was that enough? Can an average finish of 25th really be excused when it comes to a former Cup champion, especially when Phoenix Racing, while not regular race winners, has shown it can compete to an extent?

In 2012, Kurt Busch struggled to find sponsorship to plaster across his team’s usually-red Chevrolet. From here on out, though he’s moved up slightly (and I mean _slightly_) with the ride at Furniture Row, his woes may continue. Busch doesn’t even seem to be the driver he once was.

Exhibit A: Landon Cassill.


…Busch also saw a lot of races end in a cloud of smoke.

Cassill, currently the pilot of upstart BK Racing’s No. 83 ride, first caught attention in the Cup Series with his 2011 campaign for none other than James Finch and Phoenix Racing. After parking three races at the beginning of the season for Germain Racing’s No. 60, Cassill took over Phoenix’s No. 09 at Fontana, a car that became the No. 51 by race 13. He remained in the ride for much of the season, save for the road courses and the second Bristol race.

In total, Cassill also ran 29 races for Phoenix Racing last year. Let’s take a look at his results.

Though Cassill scored no top-10 finishes in 2011, he scored an average start of 28.5 and finish of 27.5, these numbers minus the three park jobs for Germain. He was running at the finish of 26 of 29 races (three DNFs), seven of those on the lead lap. He led 13 laps total. His best finish? A 12th at Michigan in June.

That’s a small advantage to Busch in most categories, exceptions being Cassill’s better finish-to-DNF ratio, and one more lead lap finish. But in each case, except for average start, Busch’s advantage is only slight–most tellingly, his average finish, which is only 2.5 higher than Cassill.

I’m not going to dispute that Landon Cassill has or hasn’t talent for the sake of showing up Busch, because the 23-year-old does appear to be one of the sport’s rising young stars who could benefit from a top ride in Cup. But whether or not Cassill is a mediocre driver, one expects much more from a former champion than from a young kid that’s just starting out. The fact that their results are so similar is interesting, if not a bit troubling–or at the very least, it should trouble Busch.

But that’s not to say that Busch is almost always putting around in 25th, even if his average assumes that he drove the Phoenix equipment about to its general brink on most tracks. Busch actually had more than a few good runs going, not even counting his restrictor plate woes (his best finish in a plate race was 20th). The fact that he ended up wrecking so many cars could be attributed to trying to get more out of the fleet than was really there–not so much driving over his head, but driving over the equipment’s head, if that makes sense.

The point is, most -if not all–would expect Kurt Busch to outperform an unproven guy like Landon Cassill in the same equipment (though it’s very possible that James Finch was actually spending more money on the program with Busch around than he was with Cassill, which would provide Busch with better cars, more tires and such). And while he technically did perform better in 29 races, I don’t think many expected Busch’s overall results to be that similar to Cassill’s at this point in 2012.

In all, Kurt Busch’s 2012 campaign with Phoenix Racing was a major disappointment, though not a disaster. Despite the equipment given, one expects a bit more out of a recent-ish series champion than one top 5 and two top-10 finishes.

Which begs the question: is Kurt Busch the same driver he once was?

Granted, drivers are going to lose their edge as they get older. But Busch is 34 years old, by no means an age at which many drivers begin to go on a downslide. He should still have quite a few years left in the tank at his highest level of competition. But even before 2012, one could see Busch becoming a shadow of his former dominant self. In 2010 and 2011, he was only able to manage 11th in the Chase. He won twice both years, but he simply was not spoken about as a bona fide star as he was in years past.

Then came the meltdown at 2011’s end that led to his dismissal from the Penske fold and arrival at Phoenix Racing in the first place. And while some expected him to have a calmer demeanor come 2012, it was not to be. Mid-season, Busch was suspended for one race following less-than-savory remarks made at NASCAR journalist Bob Pockrass while on probation stemming from a postrace pit road incident at Darlington. He’s gained a reputation for having a quick, short-fused temper, much like his younger brother, Kyle.

Perhaps said reputation and temper has led him to make brasher choices on and off the race track. Perhaps his frustration with his situation and with lesser cars caused a higher percentage of wrecks. Perhaps Busch’s time is officially up, a reminder of an unmistakable talent whose personal decisions led to obscurity.

Or perhaps Busch’s new ride with Furniture Row is the jolt he needs. Working with a team that is less concerned about sponsorship each week could give Busch a calmer mind when he takes to the track, and if Regan Smith’s results in the car are any indication, the equipment is better than that of Phoenix Racing.

But Kurt Busch’s tenure with Phoenix Racing will be looked back on a particularly low point in an otherwise solid career, and is one Busch will hope to soon forget.

Busch’s 29 races with Phoenix Racing could be called many things, but ‘explosive’ is certainly not one of them. Unless you count the bangs made by his car impacting the wall or the echoes of his comments making headlines yet again, of course.

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