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Previews, predictions and stats for Kurt Busch and the No. 78 team
Kurt Busch is an immense talent behind the wheel of a race car; of that, there is little doubt. Unfortunately, Busch is also his own worst enemy, and a career marred by reprimands and dismissals for bad behavior has led to his second new team in two seasons. Furniture Row Racing is a small step up for Busch over his 2012 ride with unsponsored Phoenix Racing, but it’s not the upper-level equipment you’d expect to find a 34-year-old former Sprint Cup champion wheeling, either.
That said, 2013 is a big opportunity for Busch to remind the NASCAR world that he’s still an elite talent. He showed flashes with Phoenix in 2012, nearly winning at Sonoma in the midst of a year that witnessed a mediocre 23.2-place average finish. Mechanical woes, money problems and aging Chevrolet bodies are what made him realize that Phoenix wasn’t the place for rebuilding. Of course, he knew that already. Furniture Row Racing, by comparison, is the wealthiest of the independent teams, and a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing provides it with chassis help, information and horsepower. While Phoenix resorted to running development engines from Hendrick Motorsports at a discount, Furniture Row doesn’t need to do that, giving Busch better equipment to drive. Whether it’s good enough to make the Chase or produce multiple wins could be another story, though. With only one career victory to its credit, the best FRR has ever finished in owner points is a distant 24th last season.
The team, based out of Colorado, is run on team owner Barney Visser’s dime, with Visser’s Furniture Row stores as primary sponsor. For Busch — whose run-ins with NASCAR, members of the media and other drivers are notorious in the garage — that could prove to be a good thing. Busch doesn’t have to be accountable to an outside source, and that allows him to concentrate solely on improving his race cars each week. Its remote location also gives a driver who needs to be shielded from the public a chance to get away.
On the flip side, if Busch can keep from making headlines for the wrong reasons, it’s also a major opportunity for FRR to have a racer of his caliber in the No. 78. Jumping to his new team early — with six races left in 2012 — Busch ended the season with three consecutive top-10 finishes. That’s only one fewer than Smith posted in 30 starts prior to Busch’s arrival. Furniture Row has had veteran drivers and young talent in the past, but never a championship-caliber wheelman. Busch changes that.
The combination of veteran crew chief Todd Berrier and Busch is an intriguing one. Berrier has had experience handling a volatile driver before, serving as head wrench for Kevin Harvick. Busch is a strong communicator when he’s on his game, but he can also fly off the handle and go on obscenity-laced tirades directed at his crew that are neither constructive nor endearing. That’s nothing new to Berrier, and if he can use his experience to bring Busch back to reality in-race, effectively describing his car’s handling, it will lead to instant, mutual respect.
One of Harvick’s frustrations with Berrier, however, was that the crew chief didn’t always take his suggestions for bettering the car. If Berrier makes adjustments that don’t work for Busch, or if Busch feels that his feedback isn’t being heard, things could deteriorate quickly. Driver and crew chief will need to be on the same page for this relationship to pay off with good finishes. The crew chief will also need to ensure that Busch stays in control off-track. His one-race suspension for cussing out a media member last season won’t be an impression erased by “Kurt Busch: The Outlaw,” the docu-comedy no one believed.
It’s also long been a concern that Furniture Row Racing’s choice to locate its main operation in the Rockies, rather than closer to the RCR shops in North Carolina, is a detriment to the team’s performance. It’s not as easy for FRR to test as it is for the teams in the Charlotte area that have several tracks from which to choose. However, Berrier’s knowledge of RCR equipment, along with the internal workings of their major partner, should pay dividends. Along that line, Mark McArdle, managing director of competition at Furniture Row, took on a dual role as director of racing operations at RCR, splitting his time between the two bases. And Childress, losing his own top driver in Harvick after the season, is invested in Busch’s success, perhaps as a way to enter his own operation long-term, and will have a hands-on approach in seeing that this “partner” succeeds.
All in all, this new-for-2013 driver-team matchup has its possibilities. As a whole, they’re probably not experienced enough to make the Chase, but they have a chance to win a race or two and to separate themselves from the lower-tier operations as they move to the next level.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
“Talent” was often a word used to describe the 2004 Cup champion. But the events of the last two seasons find the word “troubled” as the preferred adjective.
“The kid has a lot of potential,” a crew chief says. “His new girlfriend or fiance or whatever she is has been helping him keep things in the cage. He’s come a long way just since he moved over to Furniture Row. I’ve spoken to him since the move, and he definitely knows what he’s doing — he just needs to keep his emotions in check. If he can control that outside influence on his driving, he can certainly make the Chase and then anything can happen.”
“Kurt’s biggest problem is with himself, not everyone else,” a media member says. “For some reason, he holds true to the belief that everyone is out to get him. They’re not; we’re not. But when you show up and act like a jerk often enough, you’re going to be portrayed as such. And that farce of a documentary that aired on SPEED (“The Outlaw: Kurt Busch”) highlights all that. … All these blow-ups he’s had with (the media) ... you don’t see other drivers struggling to keep up relations with journalists. Hell, the traveling NASCAR media is much gentler on its sport’s athletes than any other pro sports league.”
Looking at Checkers: Won at Sonoma for Penske in 2011, then finished an impressive third there last season for Phoenix Racing.
Pretty Solid Pick: The plate tracks, as Busch makes for a fine drafting partner.
Good Sleeper Pick: A short track win — think Bristol — is a possibility.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: His home track in Vegas. And it’s probably the media’s fault.
Insider Tip: Busch has the chops to win most anywhere, but he has dug himself into a career hole from which he may never emerge. A driver can carry a single-car team and its equipment only so far.
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