Busch finds comfort in Phoenix team
Working out of a race shop an hour south of Charlotte, N.C., the hub of stock car racing, could be a turnoff for some drivers.
Not for Kurt Busch.
The 2004 NASCAR Cup champion, who was searching for a new beginning after a season that ended miserably at Penske Racing, appears to have found it in one of the most unexpected places — Phoenix Racing.
For Busch, the name couldn’t be more appropriate. After a series of miscues that culminated with a season-ending blowup in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 33-year-old racer has an opportunity to rise again.
“It’s more than I expected,” Busch said upon first review. “This is old-school racing, but they have everything we need. This is a unique experience for everyone here now to have the chance to live some dreams that they never thought possible.”
Here on the outskirts of Spartanburg, the race shop seems misplaced among peach stands, fast-food joints and gas stations featuring fuel under $3 a gallon. Yet, at the top of the Exit 78 ramp, a street sign honoring three-time champion David Pearson serves as a reminder of this area’s rich racing heritage.
Busch didn’t run into Pearson at the Peach Blossom Diner during his first day on the job, but he found NASCAR Hall of Famer Bud Moore and Cotton Owens lunching on local fare. The old-timers offered yarns and welcomed Busch to town. He returned the Southern hospitality by buying lunch — albeit after borrowing money from his new spotter, Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll, since the restaurant didn’t accept plastic.
Barkdoll didn’t mind. On the company Christmas tree last December was a sign begging Santa for “a winning driver.” The team’s request was answered before Christmas.
Team owner James Finch, who lives in Panama City, Fla., called Barkdoll just before a visit for the holiday party. As Finch fired off a list of requests, somewhere sandwiched between steaks and other party items, he mentioned to Barkdoll, “And oh, by the way, Busch will be the new driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet.”
Neither Barkdoll nor crew chief Nick Harrison could sleep that night. The pair exchanged texts and phone calls anticipating the possibilities.
After just one day together, Barkdoll knows this was the right decision.
“With Kurt, we knew he was a racer — we knew he has real talent behind the wheel,” Barkdoll said. “But he’s a real person, too. And he does care. This is good for both of us. It can raise our program, and it can help establish him back to where he needs to be.
“Everyone knows what Kurt is capable of doing. He’s used to winning two or three races a year. We don’t want to be the part that doesn’t allow that to happen. We have to up our game. We have to be ready, willing and able to build our program to where he wants to stay here beyond 2012.”
For Finch, the decision was easy. After evaluating other candidates, no driver’s resume came close to Busch’s. But given his personal investment in Phoenix Racing, a team that lacks full sponsorship and is primarily funded out of the owner's pocket, Finch will not accept mediocrity from his team.
“Everyone at Phoenix Racing has agreed to step up their program to equal Kurt’s talent because it takes the whole team to make it happen; if not, they’re going to be replaced,” Finch said.
“Kurt has the talent to win anywhere — short track, speedway or road course. A driver is like a quarterback. Everybody has a quarterback, but very few teams have a really good quarterback. Hopefully, he can take us where we need to be and help attract sponsorship along the way."
Back at Phoenix Racing, Busch is relaxed in his new surroundings. He compares the experience to “the first day of school.” Although Finch expanded the shop that previously housed Buckshot (Jones) Racing to 60,000 square feet, it could still fit in a corner of the massive Penske complex that Busch called home for the past six seasons.
However, what Penske lacked — at least for Busch — was “the fun factor.” With Finch as Busch’s owner, that won’t be a problem. After crafting a strategy with Finch, Barkdoll and Harrison, the team that affectionately refers to itself as “Red Cup Racing” toasted its new partnership with happy hour in the boardroom.
“We cracked a beer at 4 o’clock yesterday,” Busch said Jan. 4. “We looked at each other and said, ‘OK, enough with all the discussions.’ ”
On day two, it was back to work. Two of Busch’s own employees came to expedite the car-building process with the Daytona International Speedway test just a week away. For Busch, the test is crucial to see where the team is and where it needs to be. Busch humbly acknowledges, “There’s A to Z to do, and my head is just scrambled with how to attack all the projects we have to work on.”
Certainly, Busch, one of NASCAR’s most talented drivers, can find comfort in knowing that the cars and engines come from Hendrick Motorsports — an organization that provided championship-winning cars and engines for six consecutive seasons — with Phoenix Racing adding the final touches at its shop before the cars are transported to the track. His pit crew will be former college athletes coming through Hendrick’s development program.
“It’s like teaming up to play ball with the Yankees,” Busch said. “Am I scared we’re a single-car team? No. We have all the resources from Hendrick that we can lean on.
“It’s what (2011 Sprint Cup Series champion Tony) Stewart had as a vision, and we see the success level of it.”
In only three seasons after Stewart partnered with Gene Haas and Hendrick Motorsports, the driver/owner celebrated his third Cup title, his first with Stewart-Haas Racing. Although it might be presumptuous for Busch and Phoenix Racing to expect similar results that quickly, no one believes that qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is out of the question.
In Barkdoll’s office, the team’s game plan lies on his table. For visual effect, Busch holds up two hands and explains that a record of five top-fives and 10 top-10s was sufficient to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. While the numbers might be a modest goal for a top-tier team, Busch and his new teammates are confident that if they survive the first 26 races sans catastrophic failure, the driver could find himself among the elite 12 Chase teams.
That’s quite an undertaking for a team that didn’t compete in its first full Sprint Cup season until last year — a fact Busch said he didn’t realize until he came to Spartanburg. Finch has had a presence in NASCAR since 1989, and his restrictor-plate program has always been stout.
Still, it took two decades and 122 starts before Phoenix Racing celebrated its first Cup victory, at Talladega Superspeedway with Brad Keselowski in 2009.
Barkdoll, a former second-generation racer who has been with Phoenix Racing for the past seven years, credits the organization's former driver Landon Cassill with helping the team grow in 2010 and prepare to take the next step with Busch.
“When we used to race in past — and not start and park — we always had pretty good finishes,” Barkdoll is quick to point out. “People remember, ‘They ran good at Daytona. They ran good at Talladega. They ran good with Ron Fellows at Watkins Glen.’ But last year was the first season that we ran full. So it prepared us to have a shot at running for the Chase, and we owe Landon a lot for that.”
This is also Busch’s first meeting with his new crew chief. He describes Harrison as “just like me.”
“He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and he doesn’t run his program by the clock," Busch said. "He’s 24/7. He has a wealth of knowledge. He grew up hanging out with (NASCAR legend and two-time Daytona 500 winner) Sterling Marlin. . . .”
Barkdoll finishes the sentence, “On Sterling’s farm — his dad still works there — and worked on Steadman’s car. He bleeds Sterling’s blood.”
Barkdoll cites similar tendencies between Busch and Harrison on the team radio and adds, “It’s a good thing James doesn’t wear a headset.”
“A car owner without a radio?” Busch asks. “See, I’m winning already over here at Red Cup Racing. There aren’t going to be any issues.”
As Busch leaves to take a call, Harrison enters the room and says: “We’re all smiles around here, baby. We’re trying to dig.”
Harrison is thrashing to finish his speedway cars before the test, like most teams. He has thoroughly assessed his program to identify the weaknesses and develop solutions before Busch joins the team at the track.
But in the past 24 hours, he has spent time getting to know Busch and found the driver to be a lot more “down-to-Earth” than what’s been projected in public.
“He’s a true racer at heart,” Harrison said. “When he talks about growing up and racing with his dad and his family, he sounds just like one of us. He loves racing. He went to some big teams and lost some of the fun of racing. But now he’s with hard-nose racers where there are no politics; we just want to race.
“We told him last night, ‘We don’t care what people think of you. We know you’re a race car-drivin’ (expletive). You’re ours now, and we’re all behind you.’”
Unlike his last gig, Busch is wanted here, it becomes clear. Unlike his last gig, Busch has an opportunity to elevate Phoenix Racing. And unlike Busch’s last gig, if he chooses to be a leader behind the wheel, he can take this organization to where it needs to be.
But first, he must take that initiative to lead.
“This is a great opportunity for me, and this is a great opportunity for Phoenix Racing,” Busch said. “My dad always taught me you have to protect a race car to have good finishes. That’s going to help us. And with James providing quality equipment and the potential to improve on last year’s points, it’s going to be satisfying for me to try and raise this program to a new level.
“There’s an old-school mentality here. That’s what I like about it. Everybody here comes from Southern roots that’s worked in racing for a long time. There’s not an engineer here with a MIT degree who has no idea what a NASCAR-style car is. This is about getting your hands greasy and making it happen.”
It has been two decades since there has been a competitive Cup team in Spartanburg. But don’t be surprised if the buzz generated by Busch and Phoenix Racing soon resonates throughout the sport.