Kurt Busch has not been permanently banished from NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, but he has been exiled to a remote outpost far from the sport's Charlotte epicenter, the latest curious chapter in the dramatic downfall of the 2004 series champion.
It was announced earlier this week that Busch has signed a one-year deal for the 2013 season to drive the No. 78 car owned by Furniture Row Racing, a single-car operation that has its headquarters in Denver and is known more for selling mattresses than for winning races. Busch is getting a jumpstart on the 2013 season by driving the No. 78 car for the final six races of this season, beginning with the Oct. 13 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He is replacing Regan Smith, who has managed only one victory since joining the team midway through the 2009 season and has rarely even run among the leaders. This year, for example, Smith has finished in the top 10 a grand total of two times. In Busch's 2004 championship year, he reached that number of top 10s by the third race of the season.
Busch and Furniture Row Racing officials will say all the right things in the coming months about the desire to be competitive and how everything is in place for the team to become a legitimate contender. But the reality is that this is a union between two members of the Island of Misfit Toys. I'm sure the people at Furniture Row Racing work hard and have plenty of racing expertise, but single-car teams simply are no longer successful in the ultra-competitive world of Sprint Cup. And it's baffling to me that a team thinks it can operate more than 1,500 miles away from NASCAR's Charlotte hub and still be on equal footing with the rest of the sport.
The numbers tell the story. Since being formed in 2005, Furniture Row Racing has started 191 Sprint Cup races with a total of seven top-10 finishes to show for its efforts. Yes, the team pulled off a major upset with a victory last year at Darlington, but one win does not guarantee any sort of long-term success. Just ask Trevor Bayne, who captured last year's Daytona 500, but was then unable to secure a full-time Sprint Cup ride for this season and has basically become an afterthought in the sport. Furniture Row Racing has been on a similar path to irrelevance ever since that Darlington victory. There simply are no indications that a single-car operation based in the Rocky Mountains is going to have a significant impact on a consistent basis.
As for Busch, there is no way that Furniture Row Racing would be his first, second or even seventh choice if he could pick any Sprint Cup team to join, though he makes it sound like he just signed with Hendrick Motorsports.
"Furniture Row Racing has the commitment, talent and resources to compete at a high level in the Sprint Cup Series," Busch said in a statement earlier this week. "I have watched with admiration on how this team has grown over the years, and that is why I am excited about the opportunity as I eagerly look forward to a new chapter in my racing career."
And exactly what growth is that? From a one-car operation to a one-car operation? From a team that had five top-10 finishes last season to only two this year? No, this is a clear-cut case of a driver who has limited options trying desperately to stay in the sport. Busch's lousy attitude and immature behavior led to him losing rides with both Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. With nowhere to turn, he signed to run this season for Phoenix Racing, another single-car operation with no track record of consistent success.
Just like the situation with Furniture Row, Busch said all the right things when he signed with Phoenix Racing. About how he wanted to have fun again. About how he was committed to the team and the sport. About how everything was in place to win races. He then went out and, as he has done throughout his career, feuded with his fellow drivers and members of the media, and ended up serving a one-race suspension for his actions.
On the track, Busch has managed only two top-10 finishes with the under-funded Phoenix Racing team. The car has been without sponsorship in numerous races this season, likely the result of companies not wanting to be associated with a driver who has developed such a bad reputation. Team owner James Finch, who runs a Florida-based construction company, has said all along that he is not going to go broke in NASCAR, so he likely informed Busch that he was pulling the plug on fielding a full-time team in 2013.
As a result, the last driver not named Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart to win the Sprint Cup championship is starting over once again, and the interesting thing is that Busch's deal reportedly is only for the 2013 season. Drivers usually sign three-year deals, especially when joining a new team, since it takes time for a driver to develop continuity with the owner, crew chief and team members. Considering that Furniture Row Racing has never been among the top-tier teams in the sport, and given Busch's inability to elevate Phoenix Racing this year, why should either side expect 2013 to be a stellar season? If this long shot gamble is going to work, it certainly will take more than a year to get there.
The guess here is that both sides wish to keep their options open. Running a Sprint Cup team is a massively expensive undertaking, and it is unlikely that Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser wants to continue spending that much money if there are no signs of improvement. Busch, despite all his flaws, is still easily the best driver Visser has ever had (in addition to Smith his other drivers have been Joe Nemechek, Kenny Wallace and -- for one race -- somebody named Jerry Robertson). If the team continues to flounder next season, it wouldn't be surprising to see Visser re-evaluate whether he wants to remain in Sprint Cup racing.
As for Busch, despite all his happy talk, he has to know deep down that Furniture Row is not the place where he can return to championship form. After all, he was one of the sport's top drivers for 10 years, winning at least one race each season from 2002 through 2011. Just a year ago, Busch had 16 top-10 finishes and two victories and qualified for the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Now he has trouble even cracking the top 20, something he has done only once in the past 11 races. Is the situation really going to be that much better at Furniture Row?
It's likely that Busch is going to take yet another stab at rehabbing his image while at Furniture Row Racing, and then look around to see if there are any other options for 2014. Maybe he'll even try to team up with his brother, Kyle Busch, who has been operating a Nationwide Series team this season.
Until then, the man who was once the best driver in Sprint Cup will continue to toil far from the NASCAR limelight, a victim of his own poor decisions. It has been a long fall for Kurt Busch from the top of the sport. But at least with Furniture Row, he has a soft mattress to land on.