News & Media

Caraviello: Busch allows little Phoenix team to dream big

February 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- No. 51 was in top five in Shootout before late-race crash sent Busch to a DNF

It didn't take long for Kurt Busch to be reminded he wasn't at Penske Racing anymore. As the final pace laps prior to Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout wound down, his new Phoenix Racing team wasn't sure if the No. 51 car had to drop to the back, despite the fact that a wreck in practice the previous day had forced it to employ a backup. When Busch came in for his first pit stop, not all of his crew was up on the pit wall waiting for him. At the 10-minute intermission, he asked for a wrench or some Loctite to repair a shifter ball that had come off.

"You see these guys laughing, smiling, slapping high-fives? That's what it's all about. We're having fun."


Following his departure from the Penske organization after last season, Busch seemed to celebrate his move to a smaller, more old-school racing team, and this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, he's gotten just that. For Phoenix Racing, an 18-man operation out of Spartanburg, S.C., these Speedweeks have been a scramble, with now two wrecked race cars and a number of issues needing to be ironed out on the fly. And yet, even surrounding a No. 51 that had been damaged in Saturday night's final accident, there were congratulations over an effort in which Busch had run in the top five.

"You see these guys laughing, smiling, slapping high-fives? The whole month of January, we worked hard," said Busch, who fell to a 17th-place finish after getting caught up in an accident not of his doing. "We worked over 18 hours to get this car ready in one day. Here we are with a wrecked car, but we had fun."

For Busch, that's been the intention since a series of meltdowns let to his December split with Penske, a powerhouse operation for which he had won 10 times the past six seasons. With no other top-tier rides available, he wound up in a vehicle owned by James Finch, a Florida construction-company owner who has fielded cars in NASCAR's premier series since 1990. While Phoenix has enjoyed some success at restrictor-plate tracks before -- it won a race with Brad Keselowski at Talladega in 2009 -- it's never had a driver with a resume quite like Busch's, a fact that allows this little organization to dream very big as it prepares for the Daytona 500 next weekend.

"The thing is, just looking at the season -- we got us a driver," said Steve Barkdoll, Phoenix's general manager and Busch's spotter. "We have us a driver. I think the guy who won the race and the guy that's in our car are best drivers in the league. It's incredible."

Busch's younger brother Kyle won the Shootout, surviving a pair of scrapes and making a pair of epic saves to claim the season-opening exhibition. But for a while it looked like Kurt might be right up there with him -- the elder Busch was in fourth place with only a handful of laps remaining before the big wreck that took out many of the leaders. And he was there in what he called "the backup to the backup to the backup car," the fourth of Phoenix's four superspeedway vehicles, a chassis that had last been raced by Sterling Marlin in 2009. What was supposed to be the Shootout primary had been wrecked in practice, leaving the team scrambling to get another vehicle ready.

"Our 11 or 12 guys we have down here, they worked their tails off," Barkdoll said. "We wanted to hear the engine run [Friday] night before we left the garage, and it did. It was like a victory for us -- it works!"

That was, until the No. 51 car was out on the Shootout starting grid, and Busch couldn't get the engine to turn over. That small hurdle was eventually overcome, but it was followed by several more, perhaps indicative of the fact that Phoenix is an undermanned outfit in comparison to many of the other teams it's competing against. There was the confusion over whether the No. 51 had to drop to the back. There was the pit crew not being completely ready for the first stop. There was a broken hinge on the right-side window, which necessitated two pit stops and a lot of tape to repair. There was the ball on top of the shifter knob, which came off and had to be reaffixed.

"There were a couple of odds and ends that were left loose," Busch said, "but that's because we were thrashing just to get it to the grid."


The return of pack racing also brought back the Big One -- and there were a few of them in the Budweiser Shootout. Take a look at all the crashes from Saturday night.

None of it detracted from the enjoyment the team got out of running at the front, something evident by listening to Busch and Barkdoll communicate on the radio. "Man, this is fun with you, buddy," the spotter told the driver at one point. Busch, who during his Penske days could be volatile on the radio and has since begun seeing a sports psychologist, was so loose he was quoting lines from Cole Trickle, the character played by Tom Cruise in the NASCAR-themed film Days of Thunder. "We're not getting faster, Harry, they're getting slower," he said once, referring to fictional crew chief Harry Hogge.

"That's what it's all about. We're having fun," said Busch, whose team obtains equipment from Hendrick Motorsports. "Even before the first pit stop on Lap 25, the crew chief wanted to come to change tires because we went through debris. I'm like, 'I really didn't run through debris. Let's just save a set of tires, save the money.' And Finch says, 'Come on in, put tires on it.' Here I am, I'm thinking about budget even while we're racing."

Barkdoll was downright giddy, to the point where he received texts during the 10-minute break between Shootout segments from friends who remarked about how happy he sounded on the radio. And he was, calling Saturday night's debut with Busch the most fun he's ever had working with driver, other than his father.

"I'm going to tell you what -- it's probably the most amazing feeling I've had working with any driver," he said. "His calmness, his awareness on the track -- unbelievable. Unbelievable. I felt like we'd worked together for years. He trusted what I said. My finger was never so sore from hitting the button, and my jaws were never so sore from smiling so much. Because I smiled from the time that green flag dropped to the checkered flag."

How long will the era of good feeling last? Saturday was indeed an exhibition, and Finch's cars historically haven't performed as well on the intermediate tracks that dominate the Sprint Cup tour. But for now, at least, there are smiles all around. Phoenix Racing has 18 employees including the secretary, and gets help from volunteers in Spartanburg who just want to pitch in. They have four superspeedway cars, two of which have been wrecked. They're at a disadvantage in almost every way possible -- except behind the wheel, as Busch showed when he muscled the No. 51 into the top five late in Saturday's race, allowing his team to dream about what might be possible one week from now.

"It's like, we shouldn't, we shouldn't, we shouldn't -- we did," Barkdoll said. "It's incredible."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.