BROOKLYN, Mich. – When NASCAR team owner James Finch announced he would retain Kurt Busch as driver of his No. 51 Chevrolet, he noted that the reason was quite simple: The team's crew members voted to keep Busch.
Intrigued as to exactly why they voted that way, I sought those Phoenix Racing crewmen out for answers. What I got was an eye-opening explanation of the value of elite talent in NASCAR racing, from a group of gritty, no-nonsense racers who aren't apt to care about being cussed or chided -- and are oddly inspired by it.
The No. 51 crew painted a completely different picture of Busch than that which we see during the tirades and the meltdowns and the tantrums. They discussed a guy who is willing to get his hands dirty right alongside them, who rides with them to testing sessions, and who buys them beers at the bar.
And who can drive better than anyone else.
"There are only a couple of guys that even come close to his talent, to what he can do in a race car," said Phoenix Racing crew chief Nick Harrison. "And half of Kurt's talent is that kick-ass personality. Half of why he's so good is that attitude that, 'There ain't nobody gonna beat me: I'm Kurt F---ing Busch.'"
Harrison has a hundred stories. He told the story of Pocono last weekend, when Phoenix showed up to the racetrack with veteran driver David Reutimann in the seat, after NASCAR suspended Busch for verbally attacking a reporter the previous weekend.
"No offense to David Reutimann -- he's a good racer and builds dirt cars and he's everything you'd want from a guy," Harrison said. "But David Reutimann ain't Kurt Busch. I had all these people saying, 'You must be a hell of a lot happier on the radio this weekend!' F--- no, we're not happier!
"It's a whole different feeling when he's with us, man. It's extra inspiration for us. I'd hate for that to go away, just hate it. We didn't have the same feeling about ourselves at Pocono."
He also told the story of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying in May, when Busch got loose off of Turn 2 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, slammed the inside wall and destroyed the race car. Busch was livid. Harrison loved it.
"I was just happy as hell that he wrecked going for the pole instead of riding around for 25th," Harrison said. "And I'm the guy that had to drive down the interstate to Spartanburg [S.C.] to get all the backup parts. He's 120 percent every damn lap. Who else does that?"
Harrison's troops feel just the same. Car chief Lee Dodson has been with Phoenix for three years. He says they're "10 shades better" than they were last year. The team loves last year's driver, Landon Cassill. But Busch's talent and experience, Dodson said, elevate the entire program substantially.
"He's a cool guy who dies to win every lap," Dodson said. "He's all passion, really. That's what we see -- the passion. Does he get mad? Yes. But we can handle that. He's really old-school. He rides to tests with us and hangs at the bar with us.
"Most drivers want stuff done for them. Kurt doesn't. He just wants to drive the hell out of our race car, and he's a champion and he expects to be up front. He'll get in that thing at any moment and own it. We love that."
Phoenix general manager Steve Barkdoll noted that "to be competitive, we have to have a driver like Kurt Busch. We've never had that before. He covers up a lot of our weak areas."
Josh May, the team's suspension manager, is a seven-year veteran at Phoenix Racing. In discussing Busch's impact on the team, his facial expression is stoic, focused. It doesn't change.
"We'd rather have Kurt in this car than anyone else," May said as he leaned against a chair just outside the No. 51 transporter, peering down at the ground through a pair of black sunglasses. "Every single lap on the track for him is 100 percent. He runs one lap for qualifying and gets out soaking wet with sweat. Other guys? Hell, they ain't sweating. He's giving as much as we are. That makes us give more."
So what about the meltdowns, then? What does the crew think when Busch loses his temper publicly? How is it justifiable to address a reporter that way?
"He's just answering the question how he knows to answer it," May said. "A lot of guys out here sugarcoat things. He's straight up. I love that. Hell, we see Allison and Yarborough fighting every year before the Daytona 500. It's played up. We love that stuff. That is NASCAR. But now they're all in such a damn tight box it's crazy."
Harrison reminded that what we see on the outside isn't what they see on the inside.
"That Kurt Busch isn't with us," he said. "He looks like a villain to people, but not to us. He's elite. No matter what he says to me, it feels good to know from the word 'go' that you have a shot. Without him we have no shot."