With all the on- and off-track antics which has consumed Kurt Busch's 2012 season, it's easy to forget how much talent Busch really has. Yet in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Sonoma, the much-maligned driver sent a loud reminder he is one of the more talented wheelmen in all of NASCAR with a dazzling third-place finish.
"When you show up and you're on a third of the budget and you almost bring it to Victory Lane, you can't say that one guy does it out here," Busch said when he met with the media after the race. "It takes a full team effort. But I really want to deliver for my guys today, and being that close, and making one mistake, it's a tough game."
Running nose-to-tail with race-leader Clint Bowyer with less than 10 laps to go and having the faster car, it appeared that Busch would drive by Bowyer and go on to claim the unexpected victory.
But at some point toward the end of the race, Busch made contact with the tires on the inside of Sonoma's hairpin Turn 11. In past years, the tires had just been stacked there, unsecured. This year, though, they were bolted to the ground.
When Busch made contact with the tires, it damaged his car and eventually broke the panhard bar. His rear wheels would move a few inches in either direction, which made it amazing for Busch to even finish third.
It was exhausting and disappointing at the same time.
"You're that close you and want to deliver," Busch said.
There have never been questions about Busch's ability behind the wheel. Those concerns instead focus on whether he can properly channel his competitiveness when steps out of the race car. To that end, Busch knows he has a lot to prove.
"If I can get my head on straight here (in the media center) and after the race, then I'm able to race every weekend and go for victories," Busch said.
Busch's moxie though can be infectious and his competitive spirit is something his underfunded Phoenix Racing team has grown to admire – along with his immense talent.
"We're really, really happy and you couldn't ask him to drive a better race," Busch's crew chief Nick Harrison told SBNation.com. "We had a mechanical problem there at the end that happened. Stuff happens, but you hate it.
"We're pumped up and we're not let down. I know Kurt has mixed emotions, but he really does care about us and our team and I think you see that."
Busch not only showed how much he cares, he verbalized it as well.
"They bring the best out 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.
"(Phoenix 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."
– Motorsports Editor Jeff Gluck in Sonoma contributed to this story.