Top 20 Countdown: No. 19 Kurt Busch

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude on Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.


(Getty Images)

2011 statistics

Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
11 3 2 8 16

The countdown

No. 20: Marcos Ambrose | Career stats

No. 19: Kurt Busch | Career stats

No. 18: Revealed Wednesday, Jan. 25

2011 finish: 11th

Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 17th
• Jay Busbee: 18th
• Nick Bromberg: 20th
• Geoffrey Miller: Not ranked

Crew chief: Nick Harrison

Offseason action: Received a "mutually agreed upon" release from Penske Racing before signing with Phoenix Racing, a single-car organization owned by James Finch.

Outlook for 2012: Who knows? Nobody in NASCAR has had a more precipitous fall from grace since the final flag flew at Homestead than Kurt Busch. Yes, he has a ride, which is more than some guys can say. But compared to what he had – a Chase-worthy seat at Penske – his team at Phoenix Racing is the equivalent of a rock band going from playing arenas to state fairs.

Busch was a mercurial driver throughout 2011, but when he was on, there were few better. He mastered the tandem drafting, winning both the Bud Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duels before reeling off four straight top-10s to start the season. He ended with two regular-season wins (Infineon and Dover II), as well as three poles, eight top-5s and 16 top-10s. He made the Chase with ease but struggled in the "postseason," never finishing better than 13th after his Dover win.

But as always is the case with Busch, on-track results were only half the story. He mixed it up on the radio and in person with everyone from his own crew to his owner to every kind of media imaginable, and in the end, his tantrums were too much for his team (and as we would later discover, other sponsors) to stomach.

So what will he be working with in 2012? A new, less experienced and worse-funded team than Penske. An owner who doesn't have experience in dealing with Busch's moods (though, to be fair, you know what you're getting into with him). Reduced expectations, if only by circumstance.

Point of interest: Busch may be driving for a smaller team but nonetheless posted impressive statistics at the Daytona testing. He set the top speed in testing Friday at 206.058 m.p.h. tandem-drafting with Regan Smith. If Busch can manage a win for Phoenix, it'll be proof that no matter what you think of him as a person, you can't deride his skills as a driver.