DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Heavy downpours postponed the Daytona 500, for the first time in 54 years, until noon today, giving drivers and teams an opportunity to reflect on the 2012 season – should they care to do so.
While hanging out during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway leading up to the first of this year’s 36 races, Kurt Busch did just that.
Specifically, he pondered his new role as the driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolets owned by James Finch.
Busch came to Daytona with a new outlook after his mutual parting last November with Penske Racing, the powerhouse organization with which he won 12 of his 24 career victories.
Busch is excited about driving for the smaller, but productive Finch organization, as well as a new Nationwide Series opportunity as teammate to younger brother Kyle.
Everywhere the Las Vegas native looks, he sees work going on on the handful of red, white and black cars scattered about in the team’s small Spartanburg, S.C., shop.
“Everyone is working three times as hard and it’s great to see the youthful exuberance and excitement,” Busch said. “This is different. It’s a small group and we are hoping that we are the little team that can.”
The team is so small that when Busch comes to visit and talk with crew chief Nick Harrison or Finch, he wears jeans and T-shirts just in case someone on the team hands him a wrench or an air sander.
“Yeah, I jump right in there with the guys,” Busch said. “We have been mounting seats which has been the primary focus. I’ve even helped string the car or bump steer it.
“I was there when they put it on the pull-down rig, just to see how they do their sequence of set-ups. It is so refreshing to see that the steps they are taking are the same steps all the big teams are doing.
“You can say our pull down-rig doesn’t cost as much as the ones the big time teams are using, but it is there; it’s efficient and it’s easy to use.”
Busch was involved in some testing before the season began in part to become familiar with those on the team and to hear Harrison’s ideas about the cars.
“We were here in Daytona of course, then we went over to Nashville Superspeedway for a two-day test. We burned up a good 10 sets of tires,“ Busch said. “Finch is like, ‘Come on. Tires? Really?’
“I learned Finch does not like the Goodyear tire bills. It is going to be fun all year long asking him for an extra set of tires.
“I was getting off on too much of a sarcastic tone there.
“Harrison is a guy from Tennessee from the days of Sterling Marlin. It’s not really grassroots. It’s just old school and everybody knows everybody, they work really hard and at the end of the day they crack a beer and talk about what has to happen the next day.”
Even though it’s early in the season, Busch said he plans to be with Finch and brother Kyle in 2012 and see where things stand in 2013 and beyond.
He and Finch do not have a contract and will rely on a pleasant relationship and success to chart the future.
“There is that opportunity,” Busch said. “I mean the future doesn’t have a definition for me other than 2012 is going to be a lot about fun.
“I’ve got Finch’s Phoenix Racing. I’ve also got Kyle’s KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) program to work with and the Monster Energy group of guys and I’ll run probably half the Nationwide schedule over there.”
Busch feels very good he’ll have something to celebrate this season.
“I said to the guys I want to get kicked out of the garage,” Busch said. “They said, ‘What the heck does that mean?’ I said, ‘We’re going to win a race this year and I want to be sitting at the back of the hauler on top of our coolers, drinking beer when NASCAR tells us we have to go.’
“I hope we get kicked out of the garage that way.’”
Leading up to the 500, Busch lost some good race cars to crashes in practice and the Budweiser Shootout and had to make repairs to a third car when he struck a seagull in final practice.
But his car for the 500 seems good and is equipped with a strong Hendrick Motorsports engine.
“There is the quantity of cars that are on the floor. The quality of cars, the Hendrick chassis’ that we have that we want to work with, hose are limited,” Busch said. “Over time we will get some more.
“I hope we win the Daytona 500 because that means we will have more of a budget to buy more cars. It is that old school, you have to do well and protect the car, so you have it the next week.”
The Daytona 500 has had its share of surprise winners throughout its five-decade history, the latest being rookie Trevor Bayne in 2011.
So what would it mean to Busch to win the Daytona 500 in Finch’s lesser-funded Chevrolet?
“I’ve finished second three times,” Busch said. “I’ve pushed a teammate to win, Ryan Newman, back in 2008. I remember back in 2005, when I had a move to make on Jeff Gordon on the outside going into turn three, I looked in the mirror and saw everybody cutting to the inside to go by me in the draft. I’m like, ‘Man, I just got to block to the inside and take this second-place finish.’
“It kind of eats at me a little bit that I should have taken that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened off the fourth turn.
“It’s really the race that can define a driver’s career,” Busch added. “It is a big priority, the prestigious value of winning at Daytona and what it does for a driver’s career long term, what it can do for the immediate impact. This race is our spectacle. It is the most important stock car race of the year.”
No matter for whom he races, you have to admit Busch as a shot a victory. He is one of the best at drafting on Daytona’s high banks.
No doubt a win in the 500 would certainly be an improbable, even incredible, comeback story.