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Can Kurt Busch leave that black cloud behind?

by Dave Grayson
Thursday, March 15, 2012

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Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch was not a happy man last Sunday, following the conclusion of the Kobalt Tools 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Las Vegas native was hoping for a win, or at least a strong finish, in front of the home town fans. Instead he wound up with a disappointing 35th place finish due to a late race accident. In an unusual in car radio comment, during this race, he said he "had a black cloud hanging over his head." 

This driver's trials and tribulations, from the 2011 racing season, was well documented. Frequent tirades, fueled by a lack of anger management, often made the NASCAR news and eventually led to team owner Roger Penske announcing that he and Busch "had mutually agreed to part ways."

In the aftermath, Busch signed a one year contract to drive for team owner James Finch and his Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. While this team has always had a certain level of potential, it was a far cry from the resources Busch enjoyed during this tenure at Penske Racing. Prior to the start of the 2012 season Busch said it was a time for him to step back and take stock of his career: "racing needs to be fun again," he said.

He also admitted that it was time to deal with his personal anger issues. In all fairness and honesty, he needs to be congratulated for that move. There's an old, and wise, saying that goes: "in order to solve a problem, one must first admit that the problem exists."

That "racing needs to be fun" concept has been somewhat slow in the making for this team. The frustration was clearly evident, during the Las Vegas race, when we heard a few "old Kurt" radio transmissions during the race. When told that the yellow caution flag was out, due to debris, Busch again made a reference to that black cloud hanging over his head and said: "They don't miss the f*****g black cloud above my head, that's what gives it away."

In another instance, again under yellow flag conditions, Busch was told by crew chief Nick Harrison: "don't pit-don't pit-don't pit !" An angry driver responded with: "Jesus H Christ I'm already on pit road right at the commitment cone."

(By the way, exactly what does that letter "H" stand for? Henry? Horatio? Dare I say it: Hebrew?)

Also, during a pit road visit, an air hose got hung on the rear bumper of the car. That's when it was Harrison's turn to lose it. He screamed and cussed at this crew to remove the hose. The hit in track position was huge. One can only imagine the level of frustration the driver was feeling.

But the end of the long day for this team came on lap 256 with a late race accident. Busch came over his radio and yelled: "You're not going to believe it. I ran over a piece of debris, blew the left rear out, and now we have a wrecked race car. I called it-I called it-I called it."

The first few weeks of the 2012 season has been filled with disappointment and frustration for Phoenix Racing and is exemplified by the following bullet points:

In the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona the team finished 17th, nine laps down, following an accident.
In their Gatorade Duel qualifying race, they finished 14th while completing all 60 laps.
Problems during the Daytona resulted in a 39th place finish, 89 laps down.
The bright spot so far has been a 15th place finish at Phoenix where they completed all 312 laps.
Then there was the aforementioned accident at Las Vegas that led to a 35th place finish, 16 laps down.
The team is still seeking their first top ten finish and are presently ranked 29th in the championship points.

The next potential obstacle this team will need to keep tabs on is their "golden ticket" owner points status. Teams within the top 35 in owner's points are guaranteed a start in the next race on the schedule. To allow time for teams to accumulate owner's points in 2012, the guaranteed starts are being based on 2011 owner's points for the first five races. Phoenix Racing finished 30th in the 2011 owner's rankings. That means Busch is guaranteed a start in the upcoming fourth and fifth races at Bristol and the Auto Club Speedway.

The concern here lies in the fact that, with three races complete, the Finch team is currently ranked 32nd in the owner's points. In a sheer note of extreme irony, they are tied in the standings with the #22 Roger Penske Dodge Busch drove last year. They are also only five points ahead of the team ranked at 36th. In other words: they can't afford any more bad finishes during the next two events.

Can Kurt Busch turn around his early season numbers and find the "fun" in racing again? Can he leave that proverbial black cloud, hanging over his head, behind at the Thunder Valley-Tennessee based Bristol Motor Speedway?

Actually, the answer is Yes: he can. That's because this driver has some amazing numbers at this track that includes five wins, six top five finishes, 13 top tens and a very healthy average finish ratio of 12.9. Of course, naysayers will make quick work in pointing out that these numbers were compiled when Busch was driving for team owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske and that is true. However, there has been plenty of examples, from the recent past, that clearly indicates that the Phoenix Racing Chevrolet is very capable of creating some strong runs.

When the green flag falls on the Food City 500 at Bristol this Sunday, keep an eye on Kurt Busch and the #51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. They could turn out to be a lot of "fun" to watch.

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