The opinions of these pundits are as follows…
My choice is Kurt Busch and I say this only in the sense that he starts the season with no expectations, outside of the James Finch camp. A few good finishes here or there will stand out. Staying in the wild-card hunt will do that, too.
There are no surprises in NASCAR. No small-market or moribund team coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs. NASCAR has its upper echelon, its middle of the pack and its third string. In the past several years, drivers rarely have strayed from one of those categories. In NASCAR, you are what you are.
Busch is where he is because of what he is … or was — his own worst enemy. If he makes good on his personal makeover, and if that translates into performance on the track … he might just have the little car that could in 2012. It’s really all NASCAR has because everyone else will simply fall into place.
The expectations are automatically lower for Kurt Busch this year, but his driving talent level is as high as ever. With his past champion’s provisional in addition to the Phoenix Racing No. 51 finishing in the top 30 last year, Busch is guaranteed a spot in the field meaning the team can focus on race setups instead of worrying about qualifying during practice.
However, this season will be a challenge unlike any Busch has faced before. New owner James Finch has already gone on the record saying he’s not going to put up with Busch’s infamous radio rants directed at his pit crew and, in the past, his owner. The pit crew at Phoenix isn’t one of the top crews in the garage, not on par with the big-money teams, and seeing how Busch handles the challenges will show how much his work with the sports psychologist has and will pay off.
But right now, no one’s expecting Busch to challenge for the Cup title, or run as well as he has in the past several seasons. Tony Stewart‘s title shows that some changes to a previously backmarker team can lead to success. While Busch obviously doesn’t have the power at Phoenix that Stewart does as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, he’s still a supremely talented driver with the ability to do more with a car than most people in the field. His ability alone will put him ahead of where the No. 51 has been in recent years.
Kurt Busch. Yes, the same Kurt Busch who — ahem — mutually parted ways with Penske Racing for the likes of James Finch and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Busch’s fall from grace to a much smaller organization would naturally lower expectations in 2012.
But that may be just what the doctor ordered. Seeing a sports psychologist has its merits, but Busch’s real therapy may come from Finch, who doesn’t seem to mince words and has made it clear that he won’t tolerate any shenanigans from the radio sweetheart. This owner wants to win and he’s put it all on the line by hiring a driver who, despite his lack of tact, has a wealth of talent behind the wheel.
With engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, and finishing 30th in owner points last season, Busch and his new team can focus on dialing it in and accomplishing their main objective: winning!
Landon Cassill didn’t claim any top-10 finishes last season, but was able to show that Phoenix Racing could run with the big boys on more than one occasion. And if you look back to 2009 at Talladega, the team proved they can win with the right driver behind the wheel.
We all have our demons and right now, Busch is dealing with his. Sometimes in our darkest hours, if a man can humble himself, realize his potential and be willing to work with others to reach a common goal, great things can happen.
Should be very interesting to watch.