This is a season for Kurt Busch to rebuild his Sprint Cup career; it's damaged but not beyond disrepair. He's fallen down the food chain from the super-funded environment of Penske Racing to cash-strapped Phoenix Racing, which will rely upon purse earnings to make it from race to race because it doesn't have a full-season sponsor.
The $1,431,325 minimum guaranteed to Sunday's Daytona 500 winner looks awfully good to Busch, who will also be relying on purses for income, and Phoenix. With Busch, who has finished second three times in NASCAR's biggest race, at the wheel and chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, Phoenix Racing has a chance.
"I feel like we are the genuine underdog, and when you come to a restrictor-plate race, underdogs have taken the trophy here a few times," Busch said. "I hope we win the Daytona 500. That means we will have more of a budget to buy more [Hendrick] cars."
Everybody knows Busch can drive. He was the 2004 Cup champion and has 24 career victories. It was his bad behavior and angry outbursts at team members and -- the last straw -- a media member that forced him out of Penske following a 2011 Chase season in which he hit Victory Lane twice. To succeed going forward, Busch needs to prove he can get along with everybody.
Busch doesn't need to win the Daytona 500 to reconcile with the industry, but it would help for him to be in the limelight over the course of the season. A victory Sunday would jumpstart his campaign. He needs to prove he can work with sponsors and the team under pressure, and if Busch is running 30th every week, it will be difficult to achieve either. Busch could easily slide into relative obscurity, off the radar.
A small team like Phoenix, which has 18 employees, may be the ideal place for Busch to rebuild. Expectations are modest, at best, and if the team puts some top-fives and top-10s on the board, Busch will be the reason. His value will rise in the eyes of sponsors and teams.
Busch believes winning any race this season would be the major breakthrough he and the team need.
"It would mean a ton, especially if it wasn't a restrictor-plate race, if we were able to establish ourselves on a mile-and-a-half [track] or even on a short track, where I think we are going to be equally prepared [compared] to other teams," Busch explained. "Short track racing gets back to old school racing [and] that is what Phoenix Racing is all about. For me to extend that streak to 11 seasons being a race winner at this top level is important. If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, but we are out there to do it."
Busch isn't thinking beyond this season. His best option going forward may be to stay at Phoenix Racing, helping owner James Finch grow the team in the same way Tony Stewart took Gene Haas from backmarker to Cup champion. Busch says his motivation isn't to get back to one of the big teams, a Gibbs or Childress.
"Who knows?" Busch said. "I think this is a week-to-week thing. Right now, we are at Daytona, we are here to win or bust. Then, we go to Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol, settle into the regular season. Finch and Phoenix Racing could be a place I stay forever."
Busch is driving for brother Kyle Busch's Nationwide team this season with sponsorship from Monster Energy Drinks. It's a chance for Kurt to develop a relationship with a company able to fund a Cup organization.
"With running almost half the schedule over there [in Nationwide], it is fun to have a big profile sponsor like Monster Energy taking me to new markets for them and who knows what that will branch out to or turn into for sponsorship," Busch said.
He says he likes the challenge of driving old school style, the kind of racing that's done at the grass roots level every week.
"It is about thrashing just to get your car built on time, just to get to the racetrack," Busch explained. "We have one really good downforce car we are going to take to Vegas. I have to protect it because we need it two weeks later at California. Then, we will need it two weeks after that to go to Texas. We have to protect our good cars.
"Over time, we will get some more [cars]. It is old school -- you have to do well and protect the cars so you have it the next week."
Busch finished second to Michael Waltrip in the Daytona 500 in 2003, second to Jeff Gordon in 2005 and second to Penske teammate Ryan Newman in 2008. It is the 2005 race that Busch looks back on and wonders what might have been.
"I remember back in 2005, when I had a move to make on Jeff Gordon on the outside going into Turn 3 [on the last lap], and I looked in the mirror and saw everybody cutting to the inside to go by me in the draft," Busch said. "I'm like, 'Man, I just got to block to the inside and take this second-place finish.' It kind of eats at me a little bit that I should have taken that risk to go to the high side and see what could have happened on Turn 4."
If Busch has a similar decision Sunday, he'll undoubtedly risk second to go for the win. It would be the most important victory of his career.
"It's really the race that can define a driver's career," Busch said.