Monday, March 5, 2012

Under the Spotlight: Kurt Busch Places 15th in Second Race with Phoenix

The No. 51 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet driven by Kurt Busch for Phoenix Racing.
Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 51 Chevy for Phoenix Racing, redeemed himself this Sunday after a disappointing finish in the season-opener Daytona 500, pulling off a 15th-place finish and even leading a couple laps in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

When asked about his expectations for the event following qualifying, Busch said, “We’ll see how it shakes out.”

Busch started the race 19th and caught a break on Lap 59 for a caution for debris – the driver was able to pit for two tires, fuel and an adjustment to tighten his car and found himself restarting the race from the outside of the front row.

Following the restart, Busch led two laps before falling back to ninth. The driver was able to maintain position throughout the day and a series of successful pit stops earned the team a 15th-place finish. With his performance in Sunday’s race, Busch gained eight spots in the driver standings, now in 26th.

Although his position in the point standings is a far cry from what he is used to, the finish in Sunday’s race is a step in the right direction for a team with only six cars and one victory (earned by Brad Keselowski in 2009 at Talladega).

Busch was removed from his ride with Penske at the end of last season. Driving the infamous “Double Deuce” No. 22, Busch complained on several occasions about his team’s performance throughout the 2011 season. The final straw came when the driver insulted Dr. Jerry Punch while waiting to be interviewed on TV in the garage at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Since parting ways with Penske, Busch has been picked up by James Finch at Phoenix Racing, a small-scale team with engines from Hendrick. Although Busch has only raced two events thus far with his new team, the driver has a positive outlook on the team’s capabilities.

Busch is a Sprint Cup Champion – a title he earned back in 2004. He has also come close on several other occasions, finishing third in the standings in 2002 and fourth in 2009. Last season he finished 11th in points, with two wins, three poles, eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Throughout his career (a total of 402 races), Busch has 24 victories, 16 poles, 88 top-fives and 169 top-10s.

While “underdog” is not a word that would have been associated with Busch in the past, the driver now has a lot to prove both on and off the track and a successful performance in the No. 51 Phoenix Construction Chevy will mean a lot for both the driver and his team.

The Phoenix Racing team caught a tough break in the Daytona 500 after Busch was caught in the same wreck that took out five-time champion Jimmie Johnson on just the second lap of the race. After a visit to the garage the team was able to make the necessary repairs needed to get the car back on the track and Busch drove to a 39th-place finish.

Busch will look to continue the momentum from Sunday’s race at Phoenix in this week’s Kobalt Tools 400. At his hometown track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch has earned one pole, one top-five and 3 top-10s with an average finish of 20.7 and best finish of third. In the 2011 Kobalt Tools 400, Busch crossed the finish line in 9th after starting the race from 22nd.

Other notable drivers were race winner Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano and Aric Almirola who finished the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in 10th and 12th respectively.

Redemption for Hamlin.
Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images for NASCAR
Sunday’s event was a race to redemption for Hamlin who nearly won the race in 2010 before running short on fuel that caused him to have to make a pit stop – a stop that cost him the race. The following week Hamlin lost the championship to Johnson. Sunday’s race was Hamlin’s 18th win, which he earned after leading 59 laps. The driver, who is now in the points lead, is in a far better position than last season in which he finished 9th in points and earned only one win.

Logano had another successful performance in Sunday’s race, finishing 10th after starting from 9th, a finish that helped him to remain 8th in the point standings. The driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota finished 9th in the Daytona 500 and now has two good finishes under his belt. Last season, Logano finished 23rd in the Daytona 500 and 33rd in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.

Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Smithfield/Allez Cuisine Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports ran as high as third in Sunday’s race after starting 18th. Currently ranked 21st in points, Almirola finished the race in 12th, a definite improvement over his 33rd-place finish in the Daytona 500 – now in only his second race in his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series.

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