Felix Sabates was relaxing one night in December when his phone rang at 11 p.m.
On the other end was someone looking for a little advice and perhaps some heavy-handed help. Despite registering 23 Sprint Cup race wins and a championship while getting to Victory Lane at least once per season for a decade -- no small feat -- the guy was having trouble finding a ride for the upcoming season. He thought car owners in general, and one powerful one in particular, might even be blackballing him.
Welcome to what was one of the darkest hours of the offseason for Kurt Busch. Thanks to Sabates' willingness to help him out, and subsequently the seemingly unlikely involvement of Rick Hendrick, Busch soon settled into a deal to run a full-time 2012 Sprint Cup schedule at Phoenix Racing for car owner James Finch.
Once Busch and Penske Racing owner Roger Penske had mutually decided it was in both of their best interests to part ways shortly after the 2011 season, one of the first calls the beleaguered Busch placed was to Finch. But Finch, who buys his equipment from Hendrick Motorsports, wasn't calling him back after they held what the veteran driver thought was a promising initial conversation.
"I felt like I was calling everybody at the beginning, and then I didn't hear back from Finch for a while," Busch said. "So I was like, 'Aw, man, maybe it's not going to work out.' But honestly, Finch was one of the first guys I called because he has that alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. I'm looking for those motors and those chassis and those bodies -- because a guy named Tony Stewart gets those products and look what he did last year."
As time passed, Busch wondered if that alliance between Finch and Hendrick might be what was holding up a potential deal to put him in Finch's No. 51 Chevrolet. Throughout much of last season and even the season or two before, Busch had frequently feuded with Hendrick driver and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on and off the track.
That, in addition to Busch's much-publicized and repeated run-ins with several media members, as well as Penske Racing personnel and Dodge employees, led Busch to believe he was being blackballed by Cup owners. That's when he placed the call to Sabates, a minority owner with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
"Someone told Kurt that Hendrick would never let him run his equipment, and Kurt believed that," Sabates said. "I knew it wasn't true. That's why I called Kurt back and told him, 'You call Rick yourself, and ask Rick if he's got a problem with you.' He called Rick the next day and Rick was like, 'Somebody is telling you a bunch of crap.' "
Why help Busch when he was down and seemingly out? Sabates said the answer is simple.
"I'm probably one of the few guys who, when he comes around, I've always been very friendly to him," Sabates said. "Anytime I've asked him to do anything over the years -- whether it's sign a shirt or a hat or whatever -- he's always done it. Last year I asked him to go to dinner with some of my friends because I didn't want to do it, and he did. So when a guy does stuff like that, you want to be able to give him something in return.
"Listen, I think he's going to do great. I think the guy has learned his lesson. I think the No. 51 car is one to watch."
Sabates is not alone in that belief. Hendrick, who admitted he was a little surprised to receive the phone call from Busch set in motion by Sabates, also said he believes the Finch-owned, Busch-driven No. 51 car may surprise some people this season.
"Kurt did call me," Hendrick said. "And he said, 'Did you tell James you didn't want him to hire me?' I said, 'Absolutely not. I've got no problem with you, and I will tell James that.' And that's exactly what I did. I called James and said, 'If somebody told you I have a problem with Kurt, that's not true. I have no problem with him at all.' Somebody had said I blackballed him -- and I did not blackball him.
"I can't tell a guy who wants to win that, hey, you can't put a certain guy in your car or else I won't support you. I mean, no matter what R&D (Research and Development) stuff we might have going on. I just wouldn't do that. I want James to do well. I mean, Brad Keselowski won Talladega in one of his cars. James has worked hard and has paid his dues. He deserves to run good."
Hendrick did admit that sometimes in the past Finch has purchased discounted motors or parts or even entire cars because he's been willing to put some Hendrick research-and-development equipment to the test on the track, whereas the four Hendrick teams themselves can't risk the unknown durability issues that might enter such an equation. Hendrick also pointed out that Finch always has the option to purchase equipment "straight-up" and not try the discounted R&D packages, which he also does at least part of the time and may very well do more often now that Busch is behind the wheel of the car.
"Sometimes we want to try things that we don't know will work or not, and James is willing to try it. Now we'll see how Kurt handles some of that. But I don't think James will have any problems with Kurt. I think they have a good understanding," Hendrick said.
"I tell you, I think they're going to surprise some people. They're not going to surprise me -- but I think Kurt's got something he wants to prove; James has something he wants to prove. And I think that car is going to run really well."
Busch knows life will be much different at Phoenix Racing, where there are 18 employees to support a single-car operation, than it was during the six years he was top dog at Penske Racing, which employs closer to 300 and ran multiple cars.
"There are going to be little victories that we claim, even if it's finishing 15th and putting the car back in hauler without a scratch on it," Busch said. "Those are going to be big days because we have two really good bullets right now -- our superspeedway car for Daytona and we have a car that came from Hendrick that's got a ton of R&D stuff on it. So I need to protect that car when we go to Vegas [in the third week of the season] because you want that car again in a couple of weeks at California. So we need to take care of that baby right now, and then hopefully we'll get a few more built like that."
Busch scoffed at the theory that he will have a difficult time toning down his aggression and protecting the car so much on the race track.
"It's just racing smart and racing old-school," he said. "This is like my dad's race team where we had one Legend car. If we wrecked it, we couldn't race the next week unless we had enough parts to put it back together again. If you wrecked too much, it cost you too much to get to the race track. So there is going to be that balance of understanding how to get the best out of the car that day, whether it's 15th or even if I have a shot at a top 10, protecting that car so we can bring it back when we have to."
Meanwhile, Busch made it clear that he genuinely appreciates what Sabates did for him to help him land his current Cup ride.
"Felix Sabates stuck his neck out for me to try to help me out with Finch. I owe a lot to Felix for helping make this deal happen," Busch said. "Even Rick Hendrick had to give his blessing because this is his equipment; these are his cars that Finch buys from him. They're all connected together."
Sabates laughed heartily when he was asked if he might someday regret helping Busch so much.
"I told him I was going to help him," Sabates said. "There were a lot of moving parts in there, but I put the moving parts together for him -- and I'm glad I did. Everybody always says everyone deserves a second chance. What he did was wrong. There is no excuse for what he did. It was stupid. But everyone deserves that second chance.
"He's going to be a pain in the rear for a lot of us. He's got something to prove. Not only does he have something to prove to everyone else, but he wants to prove to himself that he's still got it. I think you're going to see a big change in that kid. If he starts beating our cars every week, I'm going to kick myself in the butt."