Kurt Busch (R) with crew chief Todd Berrier: plotting a Daytona surprise? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Of the many enigmas in this sport, none perhaps is more intriguing than Kurt Busch.
Maybe he's the Bobby Allison of this era.
Busch is certainly his own man, and driven, to put it mildly.
This season he's with a new team, his third in as many seasons. The Roger Penske thing didn't end well, despite that two-win season (and Busch's last tour win, September 2011, at Dover). And the James Finch thing, well, that was rocky too..
Now Busch is at the wheel of Barney Visser's Chevrolets. He ran the last six races of last season with Visser, and closed out promisingly with three top-10s, at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
And Busch is one of the best at Daytona, first up on this season's tour.
Mellow is not a word you can use with Kurt Busch. He is high voltage, in the car and in the garage.
He turns 35 this summer, and he should be at the peak of his career.
If he can keep his temper under control.....
Yes, Kurt Busch does have a sense of humor, here playing off of "Talladega Nights" (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So who's got the hardest job in this sport?
Make your nominations. But one could easily vote for Todd Berrier, the veteran crew chief now handling the talented but volatile Busch.
Busch and Berrier work for Visser, the furniture magnate, multi-millionaire, and Vietnam vet who bases his NASCAR team, oddly, in Colorado. Visser's team, run by general manager Joe Garone, has Busch on a one-year contract; but the team has very close ties with the Richard Childress operation, to the point that Visser's Mark McArdle is now working out of Childress' shops. Pete Rondeau has moved up to competition director for Garone..
Essentially that makes Visser's team a fourth Childress team, and makes Busch teammate with Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard...which makes for an interesting lineup, particularly with Harvick leaving Childress at the end of the season and moving to the Tony Stewart operation.
Berrier, who worked for Childress for years, moved from Bobby Labonte's Toyota team to Visser's operation last summer. One of Berrier's jobs this season is to shape up a pit crew for Busch; the past few years Visser has out-sourced the pit work, most recently with Tony Stewart.
Childress, after losing the Chip Ganassi engineering account to Rick Hendrick, and facing the loss not only of Harvick but probably of sponsors like Budweiser too, has a lot on the line here in trying to get Busch to victory lane.
While Busch, as likely the highest-rated free agent coming on the market, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Harvick, Busch and Berrier are already a fourth Childress team.
If Todd Berrier can keep this smile on Kurt Busch's face, all should be just fine (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"It's easy to understand the sense of aggravation," Berrier says of Busch's high-tension personality, "because he's so attuned. And it's a lot easier to tolerate, because you know how good a driver he is."
Patience, Berrier says with a grin, and a nod toward his time with Harvick, is something he's learned. "I've been well-prepared for this. So honestly it's been way easier than I expected.
"You just have to pick and choose your battles. And the older you get, the more you learn how to tolerate things.
"All it's about is winning...and if you don't win, you've lost. And if you've never seen that before, and you were working with someone who was just complacent, as long the checks cleared, well, it's a whole different set of circumstances."
But then just how much winning does Berrier realistically expect his team to do this season?
After all in Visser's five full seasons on the Sprint Cup tour he's only scored one win, at Darlington, in 2011, with Regan Smith. And the Childress operation itself has been in a slump lately.
"You have to manage your expectations," Berrier says.
"Kurt probably would have had a hard time managing that earlier in his career. But as you grow through this thing, and drive for different people, and see different things, you see how to manage things better. Me too.
"As you go through changes, you recognize those things more and more."
Regan Smith winning Darlington's Southern 500 for Barney Visser (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The early 2013 season is shaping up as logistical battle for NASCAR teams, rushing to build all-new cars, and for a wide variety of tracks. Two weeks ago Berrier and Busch had only two 2013s completed for intermediate tracks like Las Vegas (March 10th).
"We're pressing it a little bit," Berrier concedes, about the car count." But as long as we don't have to use one of those two for the fourth car at Daytona we should be okay.
"The new cars do come together more quickly. What used to take you seven days, now you can do in 3-1/2.
"But starting this late, it's not that good. Still, we all have the same set of problems."
At-track repairs will also be critical, because many of the new car parts have been in short supply. Slugger Labbe even spent a week in January with his team practicing damage repair.
"When they had that big wreck at Daytona in testing (Jan. 11th), we went out and looked at how the cars were actually torn up," Berrier says. "There were some things you weren't prepared for. Things are tearing up way different than in the past.
"The carbon fiber stuff (hoods and decklids) are really nice, easy to replace.
"But I don't think you'll have a crash at the track, before the race, that won't demand a backup car."
Todd Berrier: a lot of wins in the Cup series over the years, including the Daytona 500 with Kevin Harvick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
With a new car like this one, will drivers be cautious in the first few races, or will crews be unloading a lot of backups?
Berrier replies with a nervous laugh: "I think there will be a fair amount of crashes...and I just hope we're not participants, because that could dig you a hole that will be hard to crawl out of.
"So at Daytona I don't plan to even be stirring up dust until those Thursday races. We may go out and draft just a couple of laps before then. But you simply can't afford to take chances."
The new cars will have a different balance, front to rear, and left to right. The cars will be lighter, and different aerodynamics. "And there is more downforce (except at Daytona), which is good," Berrier says. "The old car, about the only place we could gain downforce was in the nose. But this car is more biased to the back.
"I've talked to Goodyear...and because it is so late, the safe approach is to do what they did last year...because the only thing they can get out of this is something bad," Berrier says. "So I think Goodyear is looking to evolve with the car, the new camber in the rear, the higher cornering speeds.
"Goodyear has a good reason to play it safe, and I'm comfortable that what it's doing will work.
"Goodyear is taking the same approach a lot of the teams are taking -- until we get running we won't change a lot, until we see the way it's going to go. We could wind up with two inches less spoiler, you know; we've see things change over the season, for years."
New season, new start for Kurt Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)