When Kurt Busch split from Penske Racing at the end of last season, his career was very much at a crossroads. For the second time in six years, the former Sprint Cup Series champion had a tumultuous and ugly exit from one of NASCAR's prominent teams.
Everyone knew then that if Busch was to salvage his career and get back with a team befitting his talent, a rehabilitation of his image was a must.
Fairly or unfairly, he was being portrayed as an unappreciative spoiled brat – and that perception created a dilemma. In an economic climate where companies are constantly concerned about their brand, it was going to be borderline impossible to find a sponsor willing to have its name associated with Busch.
At the time, the only option was Phoenix Racing – a scrappy bunch of racers not beholden to sponsorship dollars and who only wanted to have fun and compete for wins. This was a seemingly ideal fit for Busch, as he attempted to climb back up the NASCAR ladder and land back with a premiere organization.
The truth, however, is outside of the restrictor-plate tracks and road courses, Busch wasn't going to have the opportunity to challenge for wins at Phoenix Racing – no matter how talented he may be. That's why, despite some memorable moments this season (including a sensational third-place run at Sonoma and Nationwide Series victory at Daytona), the small team could only do so much for Busch on his path back to relevance.
To take the next step, Busch needed to move on. It just so happened there was a team looking to take an equally big step.
For the last few years, Furniture Row Racing has been slowly built from the ground up. First, by running a limited schedule; then, by easing into a full-time slate of races with the results improving gradually with each passing year.
But in the last year or so, the team has encountered a glass ceiling of sorts. Outside of a victory a year ago at Darlington, success has been fleeting. The man Busch is replacing, Regan Smith, is currently 23rd in points and in his four years with the team has finished no better than 26th in the driver standings.
Like Busch, if Furniture Row was ever to take that proverbial next step, a change in direction was necessary. The single-car team needed a veteran who had won races before and still possessed the talent to continue to do so. Fortunately for the organization, there was a driver out there who fit that very description.
In that regard, Monday's announcement Busch would be joining the team in 2013 all made sense. This was two parties recognizing that to go forward, they needed one another to achieve their respective goals.
Armed with a one-year deal, Busch can use next year to continue to show he's learned the error of his ways with the intent of then putting himself in position to sign with a bigger team in 2014. His destination could be Richard Childress Racing, where team principal Richard Childress has already expressed in signing Busch, but didn't have the sponsorship in place to make a deal materialize for '13.
At the same time, Furniture Row can use next season as a gauge to see where it truly stacks up against the competition. Was all the hard work the past few years for not, or was it laying the foundation for something bigger and better?
On paper it seems like a perfect match: A championship-caliber driver paired with a team which seemingly has all the resources in place – equipment, personnel and a close technical alliance with RCR.
One year from now we should have our answer whether this is actually true. Until then, it's one step at a time.