Commentary

Kurt Busch recharges Phoenix Racing

Updated: February 7, 2012, 8:32 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Kurt Busch Jerry Markland/Getty Images/ NASCARKurt Busch (51) ran the fastest lap (206.058 mph) in a two-car draft in the recent test at Daytona.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- No, you're not seeing things if, while driving between exits 78 and 80 on Interstate 85 at night, it appears as if Elvis Presley is holding a concert in the 60,000-square-foot building atop the hill.

There really is a life-size replica of "The King" standing at a microphone with two spotlights on him.

You're also not seeing things if you see a Sprint Cup champion through the glass windows of what is the conference room/television room/trophy room and bar.

Only he is real.

This is Phoenix Racing, known to general manager Steve Barkdoll and his 18 employees as "the little race team that could." For the first time in the nine years since owner James Finch took over the facility originally built by Buckshot Jones, there are high expectations.

People here believe that not only can they finally win races but they can take one of the 12 Chase spots for NASCAR's playoff. Barkdoll compares the organization to the "Island of Misfit Toys" in the classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

[+] EnlargeElvis Statue
David Newton/ESPN.comA life-size statue of Elvis Presley welcomes visitors to Phoenix Racing. Really.

"We all have a place," he said on this springlike Monday. "And Kurt came to take us away."

That would be Kurt Busch, who was released from Penske Racing after a tumultuous 2011 season that ended with the 2004 Cup champion admitting he needed help with anger issues.

Busch agreed to drive for Finch on a handshake a few days before Christmas thanks to a recommendation from Rick Hendrick and several other influential owners. He believes this underfunded, single-car team about 70 miles from the heart of NASCAR's hub in Charlotte can help him put the fun back in racing again.

But it's the employees here who are having the most fun. They believe this is their chance to compete on a consistent basis with such powerhouses as Hendrick Motorsports, which supplies them with engines and chassis.

"The reason I stayed with the team this long was to see an opportunity like this," said 46-year-old mechanic Robert Simmons, who joined Finch two weeks after Phoenix Racing moved into the facility. "The heart. That is what we've needed.

"We always had drivers that seemed content for the opportunity to participate. Now we have one that gives us a chance to run up front."

Phoenix Racing has finished in front only once in 191 Cup races, in 2009 when Brad Keselowski sent Carl Edwards flying into the fence on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway. Only two other times has a Finch Cup car finished in the top five.

Now there is hope. There is confidence. It is so high that "kiss the bricks" already is written beside Indianapolis on Busch's Nationwide Series schedule posted on a large white board.

"All of our friends have moved on to Gibbs and other places," Simmons said. "But I knew from the first day this opportunity would come."

So did engineer Andrew Dickeson, who moved here from Australia five years ago chasing the American dream. He turned down a job with a potential top-5 team before Busch became available and with two other top teams after Busch was signed because he saw "a chance to shine."

"It's exciting to have that piece of the puzzle we didn't," Dickeson said. "Those other cars will be chasing us all year long."

Small but functional

Busch entered through the back door with a mouth full of sunflower seeds and a bounce to his step. He didn't need a key or pass code to get in the way he did at 425,000-square-foot Penske Racing.

The way you do at most shops.

"There's only one key different in the whole place, the key to mine and James' office," Barkdoll said of Finch, who leaves his construction business in Panama City, Fla., about once every two weeks to visit his race team.

There's an open-door policy here like no other in NASCAR. Not even the sacred parts shop is locked.

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
Jerry Markland/Getty Images/NASCARExpectations at Phoenix Racing have been sky high since Kurt Busch joined "the little race team that could."

"Because everyone is trustworthy here," Busch said.

Busch and Barkdoll have what they believe is a trustworthy plan to make the Chase. Collect at least five top-5s among a total of 10 top-10s in the first 26 races and, according to their research, that should be enough.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, had only three top-5s and six other top-10s a year ago and qualified.

"It's got all the functions, what we need," Busch said as he looked around the shop.

There is a pull-down rig that provides controlled computer analysis. There is almost everything a major team has except a seven-post shaker -- and Phoenix has access to that at JR Motorsports.

The team also has a solid pit crew, taking those who don't make the starting lineup at HMS.

"Even though it's not Jeff Gordon's pit crew, it's still better than we can provide [otherwise]," Barkdoll said.

There's nothing second-rate about the engines and chassis supplied by HMS.

Remember, Tony Stewart won the 2011 title fielding two cars with HMS support. That worked so well that many talented people who have been laid off because of tough economic times are knocking on Barkdoll's door.

"A lot come in and say we have everything we need to succeed, that we're just smaller," he said.

As Barkdoll continued to show off the facility, he pulled out a drawer in what used to be the driver's locker in the 51 hauler. Inside was a large bottle of whiskey and a stack of red plastic cups about the same color as the car.

"We call it our engineering department," Barkdoll said with a laugh.

Maybe this will be fun for Busch.

A religious experience

A few miles away down several winding roads is the Peach Blossom Diner, where everything on the menu is ordered by picking a letter of the alphabet and two numbers.

On almost any day, you'll find Hall of Famer Bud Moore and Cotton Owens there for lunch. Hall of Famer David Pearson comes in at least once a week.

Busch tried to impress Moore and Owens on his first visit by picking up their checks, then realized he had only $35 in cash and the restaurant didn't take credit cards. But that didn't spoil his almost religious experience.

[+] EnlargeKurt Busch
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKurt Busch says he is hoping to put the fun back in racing. So far, so good.

"It's like going to church on Sunday," he said.

This entire grassroots movement could save Busch's career. If he succeeds, it could reopen doors to the big teams wary of his sometimes volatile behavior that has embarrassed sponsors. He is so invested that he made 10 trips to Spartanburg in January.

Barkdoll can't remember another driver making 10 trips here in a season. He also can't remember having another driver with Busch's credentials, at least not one still in his prime.

From Jeff Purvis to Sterling Marlin to Landon Cassill, this truly has been a team of misfits. There are more pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe -- favorites of Finch -- on the office walls than of winning drivers.

The goal is to reinvent the NASCAR model to where a single-car team can be successful, the way it was when Moore, Owens and Pearson dominated. Finch and Barkdoll aren't as concerned with rehabilitating Busch as with becoming relevant.

Barkdoll had enough of that also-ran image watching his father, Phil, whose claim to fame was sending seven-time champion Richard Petty into a scary eight-roll crash in the 1988 Daytona 500.

"I remember when they asked King if he learned anything from the crash," Barkdoll recalled. "He said, 'I learned I shouldn't be back there racing with those cats.'"

Good times

Busch was a little frustrated, having already donated $2 to the Pepsi machine without any return. Barkdoll laughed and said the machine doesn't get refilled often, then suggested Busch use his name to improve the service.

"That can maybe help you -- or hurt you," Busch said.

Busch can make jokes about the issues that put him in this situation. He doesn't appear to be the driver we saw delivering a profanity-laced tirade against ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch during last year's finale.

He doesn't mind that he has to drive 90 minutes to the shop instead of 30. If he works late, he can sleep in one of two houses Finch owns across the street.

"Got to work on that hot water heater," Busch said. "Only three-minute showers."

At least Busch isn't up to his neck in hot water, and he's surrounded by people who genuinely stand up for him. Barkdoll remains upset over Petty's comment about why Busch wasn't hired to drive the No. 43.

"Sponsorships," Petty said during the Daytona test. "Nobody at the time wanted to pay the bill for him."

No offense to NASCAR's King, Barkdoll said, but "We haven't seen any of that in our sponsor talks."

Nevertheless, Barkdoll continues to look for a sponsor for the Daytona 500.

"I believe we'll end up with a sponsor," he said. "There's nothing but positives that have come out of Kurt being in our race car."

This is a good environment for Busch. He's around people who invite his ideas instead of resisting them.

"It doesn't have a lot of the politics of a big team," Dickeson said.

But the little team now has a driver capable of allowing it to compete with the big teams, as we saw at the Daytona test, where Busch recorded the fastest lap (206.058 mph) in a two-car draft. It now has somebody to make those passing along I-85 realize this is more than a home for a fake Elvis.

"Every time I walk past that damn Elvis, I think somebody is having a damn meeting," Busch said with a laugh.

No, somebody is having fun.

Everybody is having fun here, at least for now.

"We know it's not going to be easy," Barkdoll said. "But it's nice to be able to dream for a change."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.

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