TALLADEGA — Kurt Busch made his final start in James Finch’s Phoenix Racing Chevrolet on Sunday at the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, and as is often the case with the volatile driver, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
The No. 51 was strong as usual in restrictor plate races, leading four laps at one point, but Busch ran out of fuel in turn 2 while battling for the lead on lap 98. As Busch dropped back, he was caught by Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray and spun to the bottom of the track, smacking the inside retaining wall.
As safety workers were attempting to tend to Busch’s damaged car, he removed his helmet, and didn’t hear NASCAR’s radioed instructions to stay put. Instead, he sped away — a move which clearly startled safety workers — dragging a worker’s equipment bag with him. NASCAR immediately ordered Busch to park the car for the day as punishment for leaving the accident without having been cleared.
The disappointing 39th-place finish brings an end to the former Cup champion’s relationship with the independently owned team after less than one season. Busch replaced Landon Cassill at Phoenix Racing after parting ways with Penske Racing after last season.
Busch will debut with Furniture Row Racing — his home for 2013 — this Saturday at Charlotte. Regan Smith, a winner last year who was dropped from Furniture Row in favor of Busch, is among the candidates to replace him at Phoenix Racing for the balance of 2012.
Smith got the better of Busch on Sunday, posting a season-best fifth place finish despite being collected in the last-lap crash.
Finch said the team may not return in 2013 unless a major sponsor can be found.
Empty seats confound Gordon
Jeff Gordon was at a loss to explain the swath of empty seats that seems to get larger each time NASCAR visits Talladega Superspeedway. Despite cool temperatures and an off weekend for the University of Alabama football team, much of both the frontstrech and backstretch stands were empty Sunday.
In fact, the track reported an attendance of 88,000 for Sunday’s race, down from 108,500 in the spring. The track reports its most successful race weekend as the fall race in 2006, which drew approximately 175,000 fans.
Gordon, who has been vocal in his criticism of the racing at Talladega from a driver’s perspective said he couldn’t explain the shrinking crowds.
“From an entertainment standpoint, the fans should be lined up out to the highway out there,” Gordon said. “I don’t get that at all. That makes no sense to me. There has to be more to (the empty seats). If I am a fan, I want to see guys two- and three-wide all day and shoving each other and then the Big One at the end of the race because guys are being so aggressive.”
Stewart reels in sponsor
With the announcement that Tony Stewart has found a replacement for departing co-sponsor Office Depot, pieces of the annual Silly Season puzzle continue to fall into place. Stewart will carry Bass Pro Shops as his primary sponsor for 18 races in 2013 alongside returning backer Mobil 1. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing will now need to find a replacement for Bass Pro Shops on Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet for next year.
The team hopes that its returning sponsors, which include McDonald’s and MasterLift, will increase their commitment and purchase the remaining open races, though Bass Pro will stay in a reduced role for select races.
Lame ducks fly high
Matt Kenseth became the fourth driver in the past five years to win the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway in their final restrictor plate race before leaving for another team. Kenseth is leaving to join Joe Gibbs Racing.
The others to win on their way out the door were Tony Stewart in 2008, Jamie McMurray in 2009 and Clint Bowyer in 2011.
Best of the year
Several drivers posted their best finishes of the year Sunday. They were: David Ragan (fourth); Regan Smith (fifth); Travis Kvapil (eighth) and two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte (16th).
You never know who you will see at Talladega Superspeedway. Comedian Larry the Cable Guy, actor Kevin James and cast members from the TV show ‘Duck Dynasty’ were on hand for Sunday’s race. Each star stopped by the infield media center to promote various products and projects, and James served as the grand marshal for race weekend.