When it comes to regret, it’s unlikely that Jimmie Johnson holds the distinction of being the most disappointed driver in the NASCAR offseason.
Sure, Johnson had a legitimate shot at a sixth Sprint Cup championship before mechanical woes thwarted his charge in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Brad Keselowski sailed off with his first title.
But as difficult as it was for Johnson to accept defeat, his anguish can’t compare to the sting experienced by Kurt Busch.
Here was Keselowski, 28, being feted by the NASCAR community after driving the revered Blue Deuce – Busch’s former car – to its first championship.
Yes, this was the same driver that when he arrived at Penske Racing three years ago, Busch claimed couldn’t contribute the level of feedback the organization needed to perform at a top level. This was the same driver that posted more wins in the last two seasons than Busch has in the last five. And this was the same driver that delivered Roger Penske his first Sprint Cup.
If you don’t believe that last year’s discomfiture will fuel his drive to return to championship form, then you don’t know Kurt Busch.
At 34, Busch is in his prime. He turned the same age Keselowski is now during his first season at Penske Racing, but Busch already had a Cup title on his resume. Although Penske wasn’t nearly as involved then as he is today, during Busch’s six seasons management provided Busch with several different crew chiefs and even changed the core of its engineering program to suit the mercurial driver.
He repaid the organization with 10 wins, 12 poles and four Chase for the Sprint Cup berths before a slip of the tongue – and then another – and still yet another, left the parties with just one solution. Busch and Penske amicably agreed to part ways at the end of 2011.
Truly, the only quality that saved Busch from the unemployment line is his immense talent – and the generosity of Phoenix Racing team owner James Finch, who took a chance on the driver.
The situation was far from ideal but Busch never gave up. Although Phoenix Racing has Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines at its disposal, it was far from state-of-the-art equipment. Still, in mid-summer at Sonoma, Busch was contending for the win. He put on one of the most dramatic displays of racing all season in a car that barely made it to the finish. The momentum carried over to Daytona two weeks later where Busch won the Nationwide Series race for the team.
One positive to develop from Busch’s Phoenix Racing experience was the ability to attract the attention of Furniture Row Racing team owner Barney Visser. The former Army paratrooper was impressed with Busch’s ability on the track as well as his dedication to the Armed Forces Foundation, which Busch’s girlfriend Patricia Driscoll presides over.
Busch met with Visser at the Denver-based race shop in July. By September, the new partnership became public. A month later, Finch agreed to part ways with Busch, who debuted in Visser’s No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October.
While the driver and his new team worked through the honeymoon period in the first two weeks, in week three Busch scored a 15th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway. His final three races with the team produced consecutive top-10 finishes.
Given the early results, it’s understandable that Busch felt “it was a shame to see the season end.”
“The way we ended last year, we had good results,” Busch said. “But what we learned from each of those races were little things. The over-the-wall guys learned things, we learned our radio and team communications, the balance of setups and changes.
“It feels like everything we did last year was perfect. We were able to finish well but also make small little mistakes that we can polish up on.”
Busch takes offense when pundits characterize his transfer to Furniture Row as "a lateral move." While Phoenix Racing had an association with Hendrick Motorsports, FRR’s relationship with Richard Childress Racing is far more symbiotic. Busch realized that during his first race at Charlotte when the teams debriefed together.
To strengthen the bond, FRR’s Managing Director of Competition Mark McArdle recently assumed a dual position as director of racing operations at RCR to help the organizations acclimate to the new Generation 6 cars.
Busch’s crew chief Todd Berrier was a long-time employee of RCR prior to accepting his new role. But with the prospect of working with a driver of Busch’s caliber, the decision to move his family to Denver was made easier for the North Carolina native.
“I’ve never worked with Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson before but Kurt is freaking good,” Berrier said, comparing the trio of champions. “It’s unbelievable just how good he is. And I believe the foundation we’ve built for Kurt will keep him pretty committed. Still, he has to believe in what we’re doing too.
“Is this the caliber of team that can go out and win the championship this year? No. We have to be realistic here. But Kurt has got to put those doubts out of his mind. The mental (side) is 80 percent of the battle but there’s also the reality that we are a single-car team based in Colorado, but Barney will make the commitment it takes to do what we need to do to be successful."
Berrier was grateful to have the opportunity to work with Busch last season. After his stint as Kevin Harvick’s crew chief, there’s not a lot about Busch’s demeanor that would surprise Berrier. However, he feels the driver’s rap is unwarranted.
“He was a lot more relaxed than I expected,” Berrier said. “He stayed at my house when he came to visit the shop and I got to know the guy he is right now. It’s a lot different than the perception, to be perfectly honest. But he wants to know as much about the race car and as much about his plans as anyone I’ve met.
“There’s no way you can’t say that (Penske Racing’s current success) wouldn’t have bothered him, how could it not? That being said, I think he will be very motivated and driven to do the best he can do.”
But Busch can’t afford to dwell on the past. He must embrace his present opportunity and, similar to last year, use it as a platform to rebuild his career. In addition, Busch feels the advent of the Gen-6 car could be a great equalizer.
While it would be naïve to consider a single-team operation to be a championship contender, a position in the Chase certainly isn’t out of the question given the driver’s flair behind the wheel. Busch believes that Furniture Row has tremendous potential, particularly with the depth of its own engineering talent as well as its alliance with RCR.
“What I’ve learned in time is just the general chemistry of a program and we have that at every position of this team,” Busch said. "We feel like we have all the ingredients. In this day and time you have to have every portion of the program running at top-notch levels.
“For us to find success this year, it’s about finishing consistently. You can make the Chase one of two ways — that is with consistent finishes and finishing in the top 10 in points or with wins. We feel we’re capable of doing both.”