DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In NASCAR racing, the eternal question is this: Does winning hinge on the car or the driver?
Kurt Busch's bad attitude has presented a chance to finally get an answer.
For most of his 11-year career, Busch has been a championship contender. He won NASCAR's Cup title in 2004 and has collected 24 checkered flags along the way. Talented, sure, but like every other champion and the vast majority of race winners since the early 1990s, Busch did it racing for big-money owners who today are working on $15- to $20-million yearly budgets per car.
NASCAR is, quite explicitly, a "haves" world. Champions come from one of three teams (Hendrick, Gibbs and Roush have won 11 of the past 12 titles; 12 of 12 if you include Tony Stewart's 2011 win driving Hendrick-supplied equipment); race winners come from one of six (Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, Childress, Stewart-Haas and Penske have won 158 of 180 races run since 2007, or 88 percent).
In 2012, Busch won't be driving for any of them. A run-in with a television reporter caught on tape by a fan and subsequently posted on YouTube was the final straw for former boss Roger Penske, who'd had enough of Busch's notoriously combative personality. In December, the two parties agreed to part ways, though make no mistake – Busch was his own ouster.
Jettisoned by one of the most respected businessmen in the country – when you see a truck with the name Penske on the side of it, that's Roger – Busch became toxic. Owners were leery of him and sponsors wouldn’t touch him.
So there was Busch, in December, less than a month before cars were scheduled to be back on track for preseason testing, without a job and top-notch opportunities.
Enter James Finch, who in 18 years as an owner has won one race with a scrapheap of drivers who were either unproven or past their prime. Top-notch talent isn't readily available for teams such as Finch's Phoenix Racing, so when Busch became available and no one else bit, Finch did.
And why not, right? Finch didn't have a sponsor to consider and the alternative was Landon Cassill – a young driver who might be great someday but not right now.
There was no signing of a contract between the two, only a handshake deal between two parties who could use one another. It's about the only way a talent like Busch could go from Penske's 425,000-square-foot race shop and 138-seat cafeteria to Finch's 60,000-square-foot joint in Spartanburg, S.C.
The contrasts between Penske (or any of the big organizations) and Finch are stark. Hendrick Motorsports employs more than 500 people; Finch has 17. At the Big Five organizations, each team has a fleet of cars at their disposal. Wreck one and the team builds another. With Finch, if Busch wrecks his car built for 1.5-mile tracks, he's in trouble because there isn't another good one.
Busch calls it "old-school racing," which it is. While 60,000 feet may sound like a big race shop, it's seven times smaller than the competition. The budget comes from what they win on Sundays, not an eight-figure check cut by a sponsor.
"Everyone is working three times as hard and it's great to see the youthful exuberance and excitement," he explained. "This is different. It's a small group and we are hoping that we are the little team that can."
That's the question: Can they?
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No one expects Busch to come in and raise Phoenix Racing to a championship level. But can he drag them from the back of the pack into the top 10? Can he make the Chase? Can he win a race?
While Busch will benefit from Phoenix Racing's relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, which provides the team with engines and chassis, that relationship has been in place for years – including last season, when Finch's average finish was 27.0 split between four drivers.
"We have different expectations this year," Busch said. "For me, that is what it's about – having the fun, not having that big pressure. It's working with Finch, and when you don't have the big sponsors breathing down your neck and the expectations to win at all costs but knowing the car wasn't capable of winning – we have all kinds of new expectations this year."
"There is going to be small victories each and every week that we are going to work on," Busch explained. "I mean, we could go to Phoenix [Raceway] and be a lap down after lap 40 and finish 30th, so is the car back on the trailer in one piece? That's a victory.
"I want to get kicked out of the garage at the end of the day one day because we won a race or we did really well and we are sitting on the beer cooler drinking beer and we are the last hauler to leave."
That would be something. It really would. Because in today's NASCAR, that just doesn't happen – not to the small teams anyway.
But in Busch, Phoenix Racing has hope, and in that hope, we might finally get the answer to that lingering question: How much does winning depend on the car?
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