Kurt Busch to drive for Phoenix

Updated: December 22, 2011, 8:08 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kurt Busch will drive the No. 51 for Phoenix Racing in 2012, saying the deal was finalized with owner James Finch late Wednesday night over a "beer and a handshake."

"I entertained quite a bit of quality offers with other programs," Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, told ESPN.com Thursday. "My ambition was to run part-time with quite a few different groups. There was a Ford offer, a Toyota offer and a Chevy offer.

"I wanted to go personally for understanding as many teams as I could, that way I could work with many more sponsors and that many more people in the garage. That way it would help me with a thumb's-up for 2013."

Busch said each organization had its advantages, but in the end he went with Phoenix Racing and Finch because "I just wanted to get back to having fun in the race car."

Finch was one of the first team owners Busch contacted after reaching a "mutual" agreement to split with Penske Racing after a tumultuous end to the 2011 season, in which he lashed out with a profanity-laced tirade against ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch.

Finch, who did not immediately return phone calls, told ESPN.com two weeks ago that if Busch embarrassed him like he did owner Roger Penske and team members this past year "he would have gotten his ass beat on pit road."

"He needs to simmer down a while," Finch said at the time. "There are a lot of people that don't like Kurt. He's never done anything to me personally. He just needs to look in the mirror and see what the problem is."

Busch has a one-year deal to drive the car that finished 30th in points last season with Landon Cassill driving most of the 36-race schedule. He hopes to rebuild his image and negotiate a return to one of the elite organizations in 2013.

"For me, I want to prove I'm making the right changes," Busch said. "I've got to go and smile at the track, have fun with this building project."

Busch said he discussed options with Richard Petty Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing before settling on Phoenix Racing.

"This is all about having fun," he said. "This is about 2012 and what I can do to develop as a driver in a better way. This type of fun will allow me to do such and stand on taller ground."

Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll agreed that Finch won't tolerate Busch's behavior, adding the deal will be good for both sides.

"I talked to Kurt a few times," Barkdoll said. "He just wants to get back to where he's having fun again and earn his respect back again. If you ask anybody in the garage where you can have the most fun, it's racing for James Finch."

Nick Harrison will serve as Busch's crew chief for the organization, which has 18 employees. Because Phoenix Racing gets its engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, it is considered one of the best rides without a big-time driver.

Until now.

"Kurt needed a good ride, and with Hendrick Motorsports behind us we can give him one," Barkdoll said.

Barkdoll said Busch could turn Phoenix Racing into a Chase-contending team immediately.

"That's what we're hoping for," he said. "With Kurt in the car, all we want for Christmas is a Chase spot and a couple of wins."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter