Call them Team Tiger Blood.
Call them Team Red Solo Cup.
Phoenix Racing — the team with no sponsor and one-third of the budget of NASCAR’s powerhouses in the Sprint Cup Series — posted its first podium finish on the raceway at Sonoma on Sunday.
Without a driver as talented — and determined — as Kurt Busch behind the wheel, it’s unlikely the No. 51 Chevrolet would have finished on the lead lap, let alone third. As Busch hunted down Toyota/Save Mart 350 winner Clint Bowyer in the final 10 laps, he slipped into the tire barrier in Turn 11.
The impact was violent enough to break off the panhard bar — which provides stability to the back end of the car — but Busch muscled the car to a third-place finish.
“He had something break in the rear end which made it really difficult for him,” said Tony Stewart, who passed Busch for second on the final restart. “I was watching him, and it was honestly, I don’t know how he kept it on the racetrack with how much the rear end was moving around on that car. I thought he did a really phenomenal job of just hanging on to what he had.”
Bowyer was unaware that Busch had damaged his car trying to reach him in the hairpin turn. As the unmarked red Chevrolet loomed large in his rearview mirror, Bowyer’s voice rose an octave or two.
“He had me on my toes and he had me scared to death today, and things just worked out,” Bowyer said. “So when you can beat that guy — you know, the two guys behind me were champions of this sport and that's big, to be able to hold them guys off. “
Admittedly, Busch was a bit “choked up” after he exited his car. The last few weeks have been difficult for the former champion whose emotions at times get the best of him. Sunday, however, was different. Although Busch initially struggled to get out of the car, the well-wishers streamed through — including his former crew chief Steve Addington, who left Penske Racing to join Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing.
After Busch climbed from the car, one team member after another came to pit road and hugged the driver. Not surprisingly after the release of emotions and affirmation of his peers, Busch found himself fighting back tears.
"These guys work so hard building these cars,” Busch said. “Over the years, (team owner) James Finch has only specialized in superspeedway cars. Now we are building mile-and-a-half cars, short-track cars and they pieced this road-race car together Monday at midnight. And here we are.
“We had a shot at winning. I was patient with (Clint) Bowyer today, then I made a mistake and hit the tires in Turn 11. For years they've never been bolted down. So, I wouldn't recommend hitting them because it tore up the right side of the car, and I didn't deliver.
“Being so close to winning for an unsponsored team. This car is bright red, I was thinking we were Team Tiger Blood out here in California with Charlie Sheen around."
Crew chief Nick Harrison acknowledged that “I haven’t been blessed to have a driver of his talent.” Two weeks ago at Pocono Raceway, as Busch served his suspension for a verbal altercation with a media member, Harrison developed a new appreciation for his driver. Although David Reutimann performed admirably in a substitute role, he was no Kurt Busch.
With the former Sprint Cup champion behind the wheel of the No. 51 Chevrolet, Harrison realizes what the potential of the Phoenix Racing team could be.
“He pours his heart and soul into every lap he runs,” Harrison said. “That’s what we like and why we believe in him. We love him like a brother. He’s family to us. He pours his heart and soul into driving this race car like we do working on 'em and building 'em. That’s where the emotions come from. He’s a man’s man. He’s more than just a race car driver to our team. He’s a brother.
“It’s been a blast. What some people think is bad we think is good. We love that drive. We love that passion. When we can do our job and we have a competitive car, that’s what he’s going to do. If we can do our job better, we can do that every week. It’s just difficult to compete out here with a lack of funding.”
Following the battle against NASCAR’s best and overcoming issues in the end, it’s understandable that Busch needed a moment to collect his thoughts before facing the media at Sonoma. He stopped at Victory Lane to congratulate Bowyer, took a seat on the window sill while he waited for Stewart to complete his availability, then moved to the news conference table where he sat last year speaking of his win.
But after everything Busch endured over the last nine months — from leaving Penske Racing to joining Phoenix Racing and also competing for his younger brother at Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Nationwide Series — for a moment he seemed genuinely relieved.
“If I can get (my) head on straight here and after the race, then I’m able to race every weekend and go for victories,” Busch said.
Busch understands there’s still work to be done. However, knowing his team is behind him will help him through the hurdles.
“They bring out the best in me,” Busch said of his Phoenix Racing team. “This is a no-nonsense group for a bunch of racers. The way this program feels is we are a bunch of boy scouts where we have to support each other and teach each other things and everybody has three jobs on this team.
“(This is) the closest family atmosphere I've ever had to racing with Kyle and my dad. We are not blood brothers or anything and cut fingers and touch and go ‘Team Tiger Blood’ or anything, but it's really a neat group. Nick's leadership is just so much fun just to follow him and be a part of.”
And wasn't fun the reason Busch went to Phoenix Racing in the first place?