Team owner James Finch was all smiles on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway — and it had nothing to do with the red Solo cup in his hand.
Finch celebrated a new driver in the seat — and in Kurt Busch’s absence, a new chapter — at Phoenix Racing by wrapping a smiley face on the hood of the unsponsored No. 51 Chevrolet.
“If you wreck 25 cars this year, you haven’t been smiling much,” Finch said. “That’s 25 wrecks. I don’t think the whole garage has used that much sheet metal this year — except at Daytona and Talladega.
“Twenty-five wrecks would make anyone dizzy. For a small team to repair 25 wrecks and show up for every race on time, I think they did a great job.”
Busch joined the team at the start of the season — and with the exception of his NASCAR suspension at Pocono Raceway in June, competed in 29 of 30 events. Busch won the July Daytona race in the Nationwide Series driving for the team. In Sprint Cup competition, he posted a season-high third at Sonoma, finished ninth at Fontana and nearly won the first Talladega romp before Brad Keselowski turned the No. 51 Chevrolet.
“We could’ve, but we didn’t,” Finch said of the near-win. “My grandma always told me if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its (butt).”
Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll had a full display of smiley face samples in the team hauler.
“I wasn’t sure the smile was big enough,” Barkdoll said. “I wanted to make James happy.”
Despite the need to find a last-minute seat for AJ Allmendinger, who is substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. fill-in Regan Smith, the smiley face took precedent. The team had Smith’s seat in the car as late as Wednesday night.
As for as Finch’s selection of Allmendinger, “We thought he was a good choice for Charlotte. Hopefully, it will work out. Come see me Saturday night.”
This is Allmendinger’s first return to racing since being reinstated by NASCAR following a suspension for a substance-abuse violation.