Kurt Busch's Best Chance For Success Is Right Where He Is
Montoya Out at EGR
NASCAR's silly season rumblings have grown in volume over the past week but the biggest free agent for 2014 is still a question mark. Kurt Busch signed a one year deal with Furniture Row Racing for the 2013 season and has provided that team with the best results in its history. Some have speculated that he'd be a good fit with Richard Childress given that team's alliance with Furniture Row. Busch has also been associated with other teams that have an open seat for next year. But Kurt's best chance to find long-term success in the Sprint Cup series would be to remain right where he is.
The changes have come quickly this week. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing announced Juan Pablo Montoya will not be back next year while Michael Waltrip Racing confirmed what many suspected with signing Brian Vickers to run the #55 full time. The opening at EGR is somewhat a surprise given the long term relationship both the team and the sponsor have with Montoya. The results haven't been what anyone involved had expected but there was little chatter in the garage before Ganassi's announcement. With EGR running Hendrick Motorsports engines, a ride there might be attractive to a driver with Busch's skill.
Autographed Kurt Busch Memorabilia
RCR Ride For Dillon?
On the other hand, the opening with Richard Childress Racing has been a known quantity for months. Kevin Harvick, who has been with the team since 2001, is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing next season. Veteran driver Jeff Burton, while under contract for next season, has not been competitive for the last two seasons and may yet be released. That leaves RCR with Paul Menard as the only definite for 2014. Austin Dillon is almost certain to fill one seat. Burton could stick around but if he does not RCR would have two open seats available (RCR runs a partial schedule on the #33 car with Circle Sport Racing).
Kurt Busch is not the right man to fill one of those seats. From the team's perspective, having Busch as an actual RCR driver gains them little while potentially costing dearly. The RCR-Furniture Row alliance is a strong one. Busch already participates in driver information sessions and team meetings so he's already contributing his knowledge. What more can he contribute to the team as a whole should he move over to the RCR shop directly?
The flip side is that Busch is always one bad race or one interview away from landing himself in NASCAR's hauler. The reason why he moved to Furniture Row in the first place is that no team with a competitive ride could find a sponsor willing to take the risk with Kurt. He's been relatively clean over the past two years since his meltdown on Dr. Jerry Punch but that “relative” includes a suspension over yet another profanity-laced tirade against a media member. Sponsor pressure contributed to the loss of his ride at Penske Racing and it's the largest factor working against Busch today.
The Non-Interview That Ended Busch's Penske Career
Good Communication At Furniture Row
Sponsor pressure would be less of an issue should Busch move over to EGR to take the spot vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya. Ganassi and Target have a partnership stretching back more than a decade over more than one racing series. Target has also shown little problem in being associated with Montoya, who's had more than his own share of on-track controversy. The presence of Hendrick engines would also be attractive and be a definite upgrade on his current equipment. Finally, Ganassi and Roger Penske are long-time rivals both in NASCAR and in open wheel racing. Chip would love to prove Roger wrong by taking his castoff (Busch) and turning him back into a championship-winning driver.
Yet the issues being a sponsor's ambassador would still be problematic for a Target-Kurt Busch match. Montoya, for all of his issues on the track, was the perfect pitchman for Target off of it. He made the sponsor appearances without a word of complaint and always represented himself well in media appearances. Montoya would never threaten to, “beat the *expletive* out of,” a media member asking standard questions. Nor has he ever been suspended by NASCAR for an on or off track action. Target might be talked into bringing Kurt aboard but Busch would be on an incredibly tight leash. He hasn't responded too well to that type of pressure in the past and EGR would not be getting Busch at his best.
In his current ride, there's no need for a peacemaker and the sponsor is already a fan. Furniture Row owns the team and sponsors the car so there's no mis-communication as to what's expected. They brought Busch aboard only a few races after his last suspension so it's clear they're not concerned by words Kurt uses. They're more concerned with becoming relevant in the NASCAR universe. While Busch hasn't won, he's provided them with the best finishes that the team has ever known. In fact, he's in the running for a Chase spot, only a few points out. Furniture Row never qualified for NASCAR's playoffs before and with Busch, they're not only in the running but a threat to actually win the title.
So Far, So Good
There's also a huge advantage in the distance. The team is headquartered in Denver, Colorado (where Furniture Row itself is headquartered as a company). Being 2000 miles away from NASCAR's hub in Charlotte, NC would be a problem for most drivers but for Busch, that distance provides insulation. It provides a safe refuge from the bright spotlight that NASCAR teams in NC are under every day. There are fewer people with NASCAR experience living in Colorado but there's also little competition for the team employees. As a result, Furniture Row is a tight-knit group that has the ability to grow its performance with real stability in the garage.
The alliance with Richard Childress Racing also means that Kurt Busch is driving top-notch equipment every week. RCR driver Kevin Harvick has two wins this season and is Chase-bound. Another RCR driver, Paul Menard, has had the best runs of his career as a part of the team. Jaime McMurray, an EGR driver, is in Chase contention with the same engines that Busch runs. And Busch himself has been competitive weekly with a Chase spot within reach. It might not be Hendrick-level equipment but Busch isn't going to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports any time soon. If he were to move to EGR, the equipment would be no better but the pressure significantly higher.
The Grass Wasn't Greener At Penske
Celebrating A Championship
Kurt Busch knows what it's like to be a successful driver but his career is proof-positive that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. He won a series championship in 2004 while running for Roush (later Roush Fenway) Racing. But he wanted an opportunity to be the face of a franchise and moved to Penske Racing after the 2005 season. Busch drove the Blue Deuce made famous by Rusty Wallace but was never quite as good as that 2004 season. Teaming with Ryan Newman for most of his Penske run, Busch was the organization's top driver but never won more than two races in a season.
Busch had few options after leaving Penske but it's obvious that Furniture Row had their eye on him. After spending a half season driving the non-competitive Phoenix Racing ride, they came calling and Busch answered the phone. He's taken the same equipment Regan Smith took to 25th place finishes and come home with top tens. So he's earned the right to explore what's out there. While exploring, he should also remember the loyalty the team's shown him and the opportunity they've given him when most other teams would not even answer the phone. Most of all, he should remember that his best chance to win a Sprint Cup title in 2014 may very well be racing in the same place he's driving today.