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Bittersweet finish in Busch's final run in No. 51

October 09, 2012, David Caraviello,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Driver wrecks while leading at Talladega; Smith steps into car at Charlotte

Kurt Busch walked out of the Phoenix Racing transporter and over to his race car, which had its back end dented up and had been pulled into the garage area by a wrecker. He slapped hands with one crew member, then hugged another. One by one, he went around to each person working on the No. 51 car and gave what were goodbyes and thank yous at the same time.

Busch's run with the Phoenix team came to an end Sunday, and in many ways his race at Talladega Superspeedway summed up his stint with the organization -- so much potential, and so little to show for it at the end. The 2004 Cup Series champion was leading the race on Lap 99 when his red-and-white car ran out of gas and slowed suddenly, then was spun by the oncoming vehicle of Jamie McMurray. The car suffered damage, and Busch said he didn't hear a NASCAR directive to stop the vehicle, so NASCAR parked him for the duration of the race.

"We were a team that worked really hard this year, and little things might have been overlooked here or there, but we gave it all we had."


And with that, Busch wound up 39th in his last run with the small team that had provided him a shot at redemption. The Las Vegas native latched on with James Finch's mostly unsponsored outfit after he split with powerhouse Penske Racing after last season. This week at Charlotte, he moves to the No. 78 car of Furniture Row Racing, the team he'll compete for in 2013.

* Video: Busch's day ends prematurely

"That was more of an emotional hug of, thanks for all the work this year," Busch said of his exchange with his soon-to-be former crewmen. "It just came to an end short. We ran out of gas. We ran out of gas while leading."

Busch certainly had his moments in the No. 51, like gunning for a top-five finish in Darlington -- he wound up 21st -- placing ninth at Fontana, and unexpectedly challenging for the victory at Sonoma. His third-place showing on the Northern California road course was the high point of the season, coming after the team had stood by Busch following a one-week NASCAR suspension and bringing him and many of his crewmen to tears. But good runs proved difficult to maintain given the organization's lack of finances and manpower, and Busch's average finish in the Phoenix car was 25th.

"We've had potential. We've just had such bad luck," crew chief Nick Harrison said. "The luck hasn't let us show our true potential. It is what it is -- Kurt's moving to the 78, and Regan [Smith's] going to drive the 51 [this] week, and we're moving forward. We have to. That's how business goes. I hate we couldn't end with a bang, but we just couldn't. That's how life is sometimes. You pick up and you move on."

That means Smith, who is losing his ride in the No. 78 because of Furniture Row's hiring of Busch, will be in the Phoenix car at Charlotte. Smith finished a season-best fifth Sunday. Busch wasn't certain why he ran out of gas -- either his team miscalculated the fuel mileage or the fuel cell didn't pick up all the gas. Either way, the result was the same. It was another of those "small-team blues" as Busch put it, biting him yet again.

"We were a team that worked really hard this year, and little things might have been overlooked here or there, but we gave it all we had," he said. "I just went around and hugged all the guys and said thanks. It's just a tough way to go out, man. We were leading, and we ran out of gas. Kind of how our year went this year. We had all the potential in the world, we just never pulled it all together for 500 miles."

Of course, it didn't end without some controversy. After the accident, Busch tried to drive the car back to the garage, hoping it could be repaired and could get back in the race. Meanwhile, his spotter was relaying a directive from NASCAR for him to stop the vehicle, which had a rescue worker's EMT kit still on top of it. Busch said he had his helmet off and didn't hear the command. Regardless, NASCAR parked him for the remainder of the event and summoned him to the series hauler to chat afterward.

"He made an effort to get back in the car and get back in the garage, and we felt like it put some of our folks in harm's way, and we just talked to him about that," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. Busch said he was just being a competitor and trying to get back in the event.

"I jumped back in, and I remembered with these engines, they'll run with 20 percent fuel pressure to get it back to the garage," he said. "So I jumped back in. That's the competitor in me, that's the desire that I have, and that's what gets misconstrued all the time. And this is the way my life works. This is a perfect example -- I'm leading, I run out of gas, I wreck. And still that competitive guy wants to get back in the race, and now NASCAR's yelling at me because I don't have my helmet on, and I'm trying to get it to the garage so the guys can work on it. Now I'm in trouble, now I've got this little storm right here. This is my life. I'm not complaining. I put myself in a lot of these situations, but it's good things moving forward. I've got all the bad luck out of the way. This year has been a great year to test me in every which way."

Afterward, Busch chatted with Barney Visser, who owns the car he'll drive beginning this week, and had just happened to stop by the No. 78 hauler two trucks down in the garage area. But clearly, it was a bittersweet parting with the team he was leaving behind. "It's pretty tough, man. It really is," Harrison admitted. As good as Phoenix cars have historically been on restrictor-plate tracks, they were hoping for one last grand hurrah together -- but it wasn't to be.