The 'new'Kurt Busch: winning again, and happy....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Kurt Busch, wow!
The amazing Kurt Busch comeback saga continues, with yet another dramatic twist, this one his brilliant drive to victory here in Friday night's Nationwide 250, giving his patient car owner James Finch and crew a well-deserved victory.
Busch's talents at the wheel have rarely been questioned, and Friday night he was at his finest: battling hard down the stretch, falling far behind and then rallying back into contention, and then playing the drag-the-brake finish perfectly -- keeping a trio of rivals so tightly packed right on his bumper that they had no good opportunity to make any decent moves in the final miles. And crew chief Nick Harrison's guys had to pull off some major repairs on Busch's car after he got involved in a crash.
"It's all about heart, and it's all about passion," Busch said in victory.
Harrison, crew chief on both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup side: "I've never been no part of post-race media like this...so it's a little funny for me.
"My guys work really hard....and sometimes we're a little down on people, but Kurt works right past the rough stuff that we've got. We just overcome a lot, man. That 'heart and passion,' he sees it. And he doesn't let the little stuff bother him.
"There's heart and passion out there that these big teams don't have. And it's a little bit on the emotional side....
"We're going to celebrate, yes. But the big show is Saturday night, and we've got a good shot at it, and that's our main focus, that and getting sponsors."
That's Kurt Busch in The Great Pumpkin, down on the apron, sideways, trailing sparks. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Depending on just what happens in Saturday night's 400, the wild Friday night event could serve as yet another example of NASCAR's 'B-series' upstaging the 'A-series' in drama and action this season.
Why is that?
This 250 was one of the best races of the season, in either series. The Friday race was filled with the two-car drafts that NASCAR executives have firmly ruled out -- with a series of engine-killing rules -- for the Sprint Cup series. And the two-car Nationwide drafts made for thrilling racing...again raising the question of what NASCAR boss Brian France thinks is so bad with the tandem stuff.
The best race of the season? Friday night's Nationwide 250 may well get the nod (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While NASCAR execs mull over that, the other story here, on the eve of the year's mid-season 400: Kurt Busch.
Busch, remember, is one of only three men to win the NASCAR championship since 2004. He's won 24 Cup tour events since his first victory in 2002.
But remember to put this whole thing into perspective:
Busch's win follows an eight-week stretch of downs-and-ups, which began with that Mother's Day weekend run-in at Darlington with Ryan Newman.
NASCAR quickly put Busch on probation and fined him a whopping $50,000 for reckless driving on pit road, which led to a fiery confrontation between the two crews.
Three weeks later at Dover, Del., Busch had another angry post-race confrontation, this time with a reporter who was innocently asking about how Busch's probation affected racing on the track. "It refrains me from not bearing the (expletive deleted) out of you right now...."
NASCAR again quickly reacted, suspending Busch from Pocono the following week.
Mike Wallace gets quick attention from the safety crew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When Busch returned to the Cup tour at Michigan, again he got into it, in a brief spat -- uncalled for -- with TV's Marty Smith.
Finch had just had a sit-down with his driver, to tell him "Here's the deal -- quit wrecking the cars, get a good finish, be nice to people. That's not real hard to do."
Finch called his new relationship with Busch a "race by race" deal, and said Busch's antics were affecting his team's finances: "If I can't get a sponsor, I can't keep running..."
Finch pointed out that Busch had cars 14 times already this season, including four at Daytona in February. "If he's going to kill himself (politically in this sport), I'm not going to be in the airplane with him," Finch said.
Busch's tirades and confrontations with journalists over the past year or so -- with people like ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch and AP's Jenna Fryer -- have put his entire career in doubt.
What sponsor, in today's environment, would want to have someone as angry and volatile as Kurt Busch as spokesman?
And fellow drivers pointedly talked about how Busch's outbursts and bad behavior reflected badly on the sport itself.
Kurt Busch (1) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at the finish line, as Austin Dillon gets sideways (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then at Sonoma two weeks ago a 'new' Kurt Busch emerged. After a great, gutsy battle for the win, losing only after slapping the wall in the final miles, a humble and visibly emotional Busch got out of the car and showed both class and maturity. He went straight to victory lane to congratulate Clint Bowyer.
Busch, impishly calling his crew Team Tiger's Blood, knows how to race road courses. He won Sonoma a year ago, when with Roger Penske; and he gave some of his Sonoma setup tricks to Hendrick 'teammates' Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon this time around. However Busch was an underdog at Sonoma two weeks ago: "It's an amazing day when you come this close, with a small team like James Finch has, with only a third the budget of the big teams. I'm a little choked up....
"If I can get my head on straight here and after the race, I can keep racing every weekend for victories."
Kurt Busch smokes the tires in celebration as his crew charges onto the track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
At Kentucky Speedway last weekend Busch finished second in the Friday Nationwide race, but held his peace after winner Austin Dillon's car was too low in post-race inspection. (In Saturday's Cup race Busch finished a mediocre 19th.)
Now here: And Busch, after victory in a thunder-and-lightning race that featured numerous huge crashes but some of the best racing of the season by far, on either the Nationwide or Cup tours, was again in the spotlight. And he performed just fine.
"I don't care about me right now....this is about Phoenix Racing," Busch said, referring to Finch's team.
It wasn't just a great finishing charge by Busch, it was a charge in a banged up car badly overheating and spewing water everywhere.
And Busch was quick to thank Rick Hendrick's men for helping with the repairs and for providing the engine that survived in a situation where doom was looming.
"It's just a matter of putting yourself in position to win," Busch said. "We overcame our damage; we could have folded, but these guys jumped into action and didn't give up.
"It just worked out beautifully (at the end). The seas parted... I juked and jived and found the right holes. I went high, I went low.
"I'm glad I didn't have to move people out of the way at the end, because Ricky Stenhouse was pushing hard (as Busch's partner in one of the numerous two-car drafts). He knew he had to get us in position to go for the win. He stayed with us the right amount and then we could settle it on who could win it."
And it was a wild finish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEDON5Tsvh0
Busch (in the florescent orange number one, which he dubbed 'The Great Pumpkin') got sandwiched in the middle on the final green-white-checkered restart and went straight back. Then Stenhouse (blue) hooked up with him and followed back to the front. Indeed credit goes to Stenhouse for doing such a good job hanging with Busch, who was scrambling; that bodes very well for Stenhouse in his step up to Cup, replacing Matt Kenseth next season.
"We had damage, so we got hung out to dry," Busch said.
And Busch's spotter, Steve Barkdoll, told him he couldn't get any help from rivals.
"I was ninth when Stenhouse caught up.
"I told Steve 'I don't have a plan...and I think that's the best plan to have.'"
James Finch has been at this NASCAR stuff for a long time. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"That late restart we didn't have many people to work with," Stenhouse said. "I saw him hung out there in the center, and I jumped to the middle and caught up with him.
"He was fast all night, and I just pushed him to the win. I was hoping I could make a move there, but I saw Austin Dillon (black 3) and everybody (Michael Annett in number 43) coming. So I tried to duck out and block them, and we ended up second."
Remarkable sense of presence for the 24-year-old Stenhouse.
Annett: "I started to push Kurt off the start, and I thought 'okay, I'm going to push him and it'll be us two.'
"Then he had to split Austin and whoever the two guys were on the outside, and I wasn't clear. So I was like 'All right, Austin is the one, and we know he's got some horsepower.'"
Busch himself seemed almost overwhelmed by the win afterwards. Certainly relieved....after all this was clearly one of the biggest wins of his career, considering the entire buildup.
"I'm glad I finally brought a car back...though it's damaged too. But we're in victory lane."
And what will Kurt Busch do now for an encore?
"The third quarter of this season is just starting, and this is a great opportunity," Busch says. "A night like this puts us on a great stage.
"I'm a racer. I don't know much about anything else. You get caught up in marketing or PR and everything else that goes along with it, but you've got to do all the steps in this day and age.
"I keep saying I grew up 30 years too late, and I still haven't grown up, even though I'm 33.
"Back in the 80s -- that's what this team reminds me of. It's family. And you go hard, or you go home."
Another dramatic Nationwide race. Maybe the Sprint Cup guys need to take some lessons.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)