CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was a very big day at the Furniture Row store on the north side of Charlotte, and it didn't even involve a sale. With soothing instrumental music playing over the public-address system and a black No. 78 car wedged among bookcases and dinette sets, Kurt Busch shook plenty of hands with employees at a retail outlet owned by the same man who owns his new race team. The former Sprint Cup champion signed caps, he answered questions -- favorite track? As far as fun factor, probably Darlington -- he was even greeted by the regional manager.
And of course he posed for photos, with everyone arrayed around the vehicle as if they were standing in Victory Lane. "Can I get a close-up," one salesman asked, "so everyone knows it's really Kurt Busch?"
Indeed, it was really Kurt Busch, embarking upon the next step in the revival of a career that so far has netted 24 victories and a premier-series title, but has encountered its share of rough patches along the way. Following his split from Penske Racing after last season, he experienced the fall, resurfacing in an undermanned, unsponsored No. 51 car owned by James Finch. This weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway marks what could be the beginning of the return, six races in a Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet that will serve as a springboard to a full-time campaign in the same vehicle next season.
It's easy to see why some would view it as a straight-up swap, given that Finch and Furniture Row owner Barney Visser have the same number of victories on NASCAR's premier circuit -- exactly one. But when you push beyond that rather superficial statistic, and recount all the issues that befell the No. 51 car this season simply because it was so lacking in terms of financing and personnel, it's clear that this was a move Busch had to make. Perhaps not even his immeasurable talent will be enough to lift the Denver-based No. 78 team to the heights it aspires to reach. But with a pit crew from Stewart-Haas, an alliance with Richard Childress, and a race-winning crew chief, it would be ludicrous to call this anything but a step up.
No wonder Finch told Busch to take the ride.
"When he heard the 78 was an option for me, he said, 'Go. I can't hold you back,'" Busch said. "So it was tough to separate on our word, our handshake. Our word was to start together, finish together. ... But at the end of the day, I needed to get back with a program such as this and use the end of 2012, this rebuilding year, to make sure that car is as solid as it can be going to Daytona."
Of course, that didn't make the end last weekend any less difficult, something that was evident in the hugs after Busch ran out of fuel and crashed at Talladega in his final ride in the No. 51. Finch's team gave Busch a chance when no one else would, even stood by him in the wake of a one-week NASCAR suspension, and was rewarded with the best chance it ever had to be consistently competitive on the race track. But running out of fuel while leading the race, with supposedly four laps still remaining in the pit window -- Busch's tenure with Phoenix Racing was riddled with those kinds of issues, ones that more often befall teams that don't have enough money and don't have enough people, and make it difficult even to capitalize on talent behind the wheel.
No question, there were times when it all came together -- that third-place run at Sonoma was simply mesmerizing -- and others when Busch simply overdrove the vehicle, asking too much of a car that didn't have that much to give. The hurdles, summed up by three wrecked race cars and harried practice sessions at Speedweeks, were often too much to overcome. Still, burning with something to prove and buoyed by a new opportunity, Busch at first really thought he could make it work.
"When I sat in the car, I don't see colors, I don't see what's on the outside. I just see what's through my windshield. And I still thought I was in a competitive car," he said. "Because I gave it 100 percent in practice. I gave it 100 percent in my feedback. ... So when I got into the races at the beginning of the year, I was still trying to prove, maybe we can do it different. Maybe we can, with a lesser budget, compete against these guys. We slipped and slid. We had some terrible luck. ... Yes, there were a couple of events like Darlington, I overdrove it, I wrecked it. Charlotte qualifying. That's trying to carry it. The Fred Flintstone theory -- stick my feet out the bottom and roll."
He shouldn't have to do that in the No. 78, which on paper at least affords him a much better opportunity to be competitive on the race track. The car is up to date, the vehicle has been in the wind tunnel, the team has a lead engineer, the shared resources of Chevrolet and RCR are available. "It's a full-blooded thoroughbred," Busch said.
Unlike his predecessor at Furniture Row, Regan Smith, Busch doesn't plan to move to Denver, where the race shop operates from 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. to stay in line with eastern time. But he doesn't see the distance as an obstacle, either, and believes the schedule affords him plenty of opportunity to visit Colorado. In his head, he already has a rough sketch of the early portion of the 2013 season -- two weeks in Daytona, hit the shop en route to Phoenix, swing by again before Las Vegas, one more time on the way back east before Bristol. In the spring, stop in before Texas and Kansas.
"I'm going to spend all the time out there I need to spend," Busch said. "I have no trouble working hard. That should be evident this year."
And then there's RCR, which Busch said "has opened the front doors for me." Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone has often said he views his team as the fourth car at Childress, emblematic of the relationship between the two organizations. Busch said Furniture Row spotter Rick Carelli, who once raced for Kevin Harvick and worked with the RCR team, plans to give him a tour of the Childress facility in Welcome, N.C., which he envisions stopping by on Mondays after races at nearby Martinsville Speedway. "It's like I've got two homes," Busch said.
But one boss -- Visser, a soft-spoken Colorado businessman whom Busch says reminds him of actor Donald Sutherland, and whose chain of furniture stores also adorns the hood of the No. 78 car. These final six races of 2012 are a lead-in for next season, a span Busch plans to use to fine-tune communication and build relationships on his new race team. "We have to hit the ground running at Daytona," he said. When you look at how well Busch has historically run at Daytona, and how well the No. 78 car has historically run on restrictor-plate tracks, it's easy to assemble the pieces of what this driver and this organization might be capable of in the Great American Race. As much as anything else, that Daytona potential encapsulates why this was a move Busch had to make.
All that, though, lies ahead. Busch is very early in this process, and his every step is surely being watched, and there are no guarantees he will ever again reach the level at which he won so many races and the series championship. But he's now with a team that, in theory, should be less susceptible to the kinds of problems he's faced to this point in the season. He's in cars that he shouldn't have to overdrive. He's with an organization that has more people, more money, and more resources. And perhaps most importantly, he has an owner in Visser who wants him to do just one thing.
"He wanted somebody to sit in that seat. That's what he wanted," Busch said "I've been with big corporate sponsors, I've done six to eight hospitality meetings on Sunday morning before the race that wear you out. He wanted someone behind the wheel. That's all I wanted to do. This is a perfect match."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Kurt Busch
- Furniture Row