SONOMA, Calif. -- The confetti was shot from cannons in Victory Lane, but it didn't stay there for very long. Carried by a strong breeze, the small pieces of colored paper fluttered over the grandstand railing and onto pit road -- very near where the No. 51 car was parked. The scene was all quite appropriate given that Sunday, on the road course at Sonoma, it felt very much like Kurt Busch had won.
Where to begin?
A red Chevrolet that was unsponsored and, in the end, wounded; a car that was supposed to have no business being in contention on a road course, somehow doggedly maintaining a position near the front; team members not just from Phoenix Racing, but also from other organizations, sticking their head inside the drivers' side window to offer congratulations after the vehicle had finished third. And Busch, the most beleaguered driver on the Sprint Cup tour, a competitor who just two weeks ago was on suspension, climbing out and fighting back tears.
"Gave it everything I had," he said, his voice cracking. "Happy with third."
Clint Bowyer may have won at Sonoma to claim his first victory at Michael Waltrip Racing and take another step toward a berth in the Chase, but Sunday afternoon all eyes were glued to a driver who very recently was worried about having a job. A Phoenix car contending on a road course? Although Busch was the defending champion of this event, he won last year with another vehicle and another team -- and has battled plenty of demons in the time since. Anything close to a repeat performance seemed about as likely as finding a bad barrel of cabernet over in Napa Valley.
And yet there he was, near the front almost all day, giving Bowyer the absolute devil in the closing laps before banging off a tire barrier and breaking a suspension part in the rear of his car. Tony Stewart passed him for second in a green-white-checkered finish, but that didn't dampen the emotion that poured forth from the members of a Phoenix team who stuck with their driver even after Busch was suspended one race by NASCAR for an incident with a reporter. On a blue-sky day amid the caramel-colored hills of northern California, two things were very evident. Busch's team loves him because of the way he drives. And, goodness, can the guy drive.
"He had me scared to death today," Bowyer said.
It's easy to forget what he's capable of, given all the baggage that has accumulated around the 2004 champion of NASCAR's premier series. Sunday brought it all flooding back: all the inescapable talent that's so often been overshadowed by other things. James Finch's race cars are supposed to perform on big speedways, not road courses -- his team's previous best performance on any Sprint Cup road layout had been 12th, with Jan Magnussen here in 2010 -- and yet there it was, giving Bowyer everything he could handle until only a few laps remained. They didn't finish building the thing until Monday night at about midnight. The radio communication was spotty. Busch's helmet blower stopped working. The water temperature climbed as high as the TransAmerica Pyramid. A part in the rear end was broken.
And still it came home third, a complete testament to just how good Kurt Busch can be.
"We've never really had the guy with the experience Kurt has," said Lee Dodson, car chief on the No. 51. "We put somebody like that in the seat, man, we're going to be right there. He knows what he wants every run. ... We have someone like that in the seat, we can go to all these other places like Michigan and Kansas and run up front. I think that's just him being in the seat."
No wonder they stood by him.
For all his troubles, the 24-time race winner may very well be the best pure talent to ever sit in one of Finch's race cars, and that kind of ability carries with it new possibilities. It also brings demands, as everyone saw two months ago at Darlington, when Busch wanted more out of the car than it was prepared to give and things grew a little testy over the radio as a result. But that's a tradeoff the guys at Phoenix seem more than willing to make. All that furor at Darlington? All that controversy at Dover? Putting someone else in the seat at Pocono? Surely, it made Sunday's effort feel all the more worth it.
"We love him behind the wheel, man," Dodson said. "We've never said a bad thing about Kurt. He's never done anything bad to us. We're behind him a hundred-thousand percent, and that's why. Right here today, that's why we're like that."
"He pours his heart and soul into every lap he runs," crew chief Nick Harrison added. "That's what we like and that's what we believe in and that's what we've told reporters all year. We don't have bad feelings for Kurt Busch. We love him like a brother. He pours his heart and soul into driving this race car like we do working on them and building them. That's what it takes, and that's where the emotion comes from. We're all a little emotional, because that's a strong run. We pour a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this."
No wonder, then, there were so many hugs and handshakes and grown men trying to choke back tears.
"Kurt, we love you man,' Harrison, his voice cracking with emotion, said over the radio after the race ended. "Thanks for your heart. We love you like family."
Steve Addington, Busch's crew chief last season at Penske and now signal-caller for race's runner-up Stewart, was among the first to stick his head in the window after the No. 51 car parked on pit road. Crewmen from other organizations, and even NASCAR officials came by as Phoenix team members traded embraces and high-fives. Who won the race again?
"It's just been great support from people that have hard cards in this garage area," Busch said "Team members, sponsors, team owners. One day can't define you."
There's no way to fake performance at a place like Sonoma, a place that demands so much out of a vehicle. Busch said his team used setup notes from his victory here last year with Penske, and shared that information with Hendrick Motorsports -- which supplies his Phoenix team with chassis and engines. "There was a car on the front row with my setup from last year, and there was a 48 car out there with my setup," he said, referring to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
To see Busch outrun them both was an eye-opener, if only because of the lack of performance Finch's cars have historically shown anywhere other than the sport's biggest and fastest tracks. But not because of the man behind the wheel. Kurt Busch may have two dozen victories and a championship at the sport's top level, but Sunday's third-place effort at Sonoma is one of the more impressive things he has ever done inside a race car. When all the controversies fade into the background, there's no doubting how good the guy can be. Even in an underfunded car with a damaged back end that was so loose over the final laps that it was swinging out two inches in either direction. Similarly, there's no doubting how much faith his teammates have in him.
"It was only a matter of time," Dodson said. "We knew we were going to have a run like this. We cheered for him every lap. We were pit stall 43, and every lap he came through, we were on the wall cheering for him. We knew it was going to be like this. We didn't know it was going to be quite this emotional, but we knew it was going to come. It was only a matter of time."