This is for everyone who thought he’d be in a slump and get even more upset.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — So far, Kurt Busch’s experience with Phoenix Racing has been everything he’d hoped the 2012 NASCAR season would be. Try a 90-minute commute to Phoenix’s South Carolina shop for starters, which might be brutal for some but is like a godsend for Busch.
“It’s almost therapeutic driving there and driving back [to North Carolina], with the time you get to think about things as well as create checklists,” a smiling Busch said early Friday afternoon. “I’m technologically challenged, so I finally hooked up Bluetooth in my truck so I can talk going down the road.
It’s just that fun atmosphere, working on the car, being with the guys. This is exactly what I needed.”
The thrill continued for Busch on Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway as, working with his 2011 tandem drafting partner Regan Smith, Busch turned the fastest lap seen both at this Preseason Thunder test and at Daytona in years, at an average of 206.058 mph.
A short time before that Busch met with the media and called his opening days with the Phoenix organization as “pure joy.”
Getting to Preseason Thunder was a challenge for Busch and his team based in Spartanburg, S.C. Having to run with the seat used last season by Landon Cassill, who’s quite a bit shorter than Busch, was an eye-opener. But it was a minor hiccup that Busch chose to laugh off, especially since it didn’t hinder his ability to go fast.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work with a small group of guys and thrash on just getting the car to the hauler to get the hauler down here on time,” Busch said. “And just how everybody on the team is just walking on cloud nine right now with the excitement, with the way that we’ve been running so far on track, especially in the single car runs, with where we did our mock up qualifying run. It put us second on the board as far as guys with the fastest laps [Friday] morning in single car runs.”
Among the cars which turned single-car laps, Jeff Gordon had the best speed Friday morning at 196.048 mph. Busch’s best morning lap was an average of 196.014.
Last season Busch found himself embroiled in a number of controversies with his Penske Racing team, the media and other competitors. After the Sprint Cup awards ceremony, owner Roger Penske and Busch announced a mutual agreement to separate.
This season Busch said he’s trying to bring fun back into his racing and that so far it’s working.
“Just a ton of excitement, and the way the guys are together on this, they’re looking at me to grow and to learn, and I’m looking at them to grow and to learn,” Busch said. “So it’s going to be a lot of fun this year.”
Busch said his personal change has been a case of going step by step. Busch disagrees with any contention that he will unwind if he doesn’t find immediate success.
“I’ve always been guilty of doing things the hard way, and working hard instead of smart, I guess is my mentality,” Busch said. “And these guys, the way that we’re understaffed, but yet they have such a big heart, they’re just like me.
“So getting back to old school racing, having fun with it, the pressure is not there. But when we go week to week and go to Phoenix, Vegas, into Bristol we’ll start to learn more about the cars, where we stack up. It’s not going to take winning to make me happy.”
Busch said his first day at Phoenix’s shop epitomized that. Owner James Finch, whose primary businesses are based on the Florida panhandle, was in the house.
“We all looked at each other like we were done talking,” Busch said. “It was [3:45]. I said, ‘Where’s your beer cooler around here?’ We went and cracked open a couple beers and started chitchatting the rest of the day about fun stories. That’s what this is going to be about for me in 2012.”
But Busch reiterated that through the one-year deal with Phoenix, his real aim is 2013. On Thursday, Richard Petty told the media several sponsors had declined working with Busch. But Busch said he initially had contemplated a multi-faceted 2012 program but couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract with Petty to drive Richard Petty Motorsports’ famed No. 43.
Busch, who said he had wanted to talk to as many owners and sponsors as possible before making his decision, said he also discussed possible rides with owners Michael Waltrip and Richard Childress, among others.
“Just the doors that were opened during this offseason to talk to people,” Busch said. “Yes, 2012 is going to be a unique year for somebody such as myself. But to take a step back for me personally and look at all of this, this is what I need. And all along we’re going to keep our eyes on the prize in 2013.
“If I’m going to sit there and tell stories to my grandchildren, this is not what I wanted to tell them. So in looking at the big picture, I’ve got to understand what it takes to be a competitive driver and to harness that fire in my belly the right way and to put it together in a 2004 style effort.”
Busch won the 2004 Cup Series championship in the first year of the Chase. Busch won 10 points races and several special events in his time at Penske Racing, but he recognizes what he has to work on.
“When things are going smooth, this is a tough freight train to stop,” Busch said. “When things are going rough, that’s what I have to polish up on and knock the rough edges off.
“So working with a group like Finch, having fun while doing it, there’s more to it than just settling down into 2012 and just going to the race track. There’s going to be a lot going on behind the scenes and things just don’t change overnight, though.”
Busch will run a limited Nationwide Series schedule for Phoenix Racing, and he said he had discussed possibly doing some additional Nationwide races for his brother’s Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“We’re talking, but it’s obviously odd [because] I was with the Dodge camp for years and Ford before that, I’m in a Chevrolet for Finch and with Kyle’s Toyota thing we’re trying to work through the details,” Kurt said. “It’s still open and I want to do what I can to help Kyle.”
Things appear to be improving for sure.