Kurt Busch, hot again, with a good shot to win here Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Kurt Busch is once again reinventing himself, and the new Kurt Busch has – dare we suggest it? – mellowed.
Okay, not really mellow mellowed. But he's finally found a great mental niche, at ease with himself and his crew, still intensely focused, but no longer that needlessly distracted by the irrelevant.
It has been a remarkable transition to watch.
Despite those early season frustrations, Busch kept his cool.
And the results are coming. Except for that 35th at Michigan, where he spun out, Busch and crew chief Todd Berrier – who learned patience during his years with Kevin Harvick – have performed well: the pole at Darlington, and a bunch of laps-led, and a 14th…a third at Charlotte…a 12th at Dover…a seventh at Pocono…a fourth at Sonoma…and sixths at Kentucky and Daytona.
Presto! Busch has leaped to ninth in the Sprint Cup standings.
And he'll start on the front row here in Sunday's New Hampshire 300, qualifying Friday right behind suddenly surprising pole winner Brad Keselowski (135.922 mph), who has been in a heck of a slump the past few months. But red-hot Jimmie Johnson, fresh off that Daytona win, was sent to the rear of the field for Sunday's 1 p.m. ET start by NASCAR, after post-qualifying inspection found his car too low. Johnson had been second fastest, and among 10 who broke the track record.
Johnson's car too low? "We made a mistake," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "It happens.
"It will hurt us tremendously in pit selection. But the car is good, really good. The beauty of Loudon is there is opportunity to race up through the field. Cars can make up ground with pit strategy. I look forward to the challenge. We can make it exciting."
Crew chief Todd Berrier (R) and Kurt Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hanging around up in the hauler with Busch, Berrier and the guys, the atmosphere is both edgy and exciting.
Credit Berrier's wacky sense of humor for some of it.
But Busch has been on his game nearly every week now. And the snide comments and pointless rips have been filed away.
Kurt Busch is actually fun to hang with.
After some 12 seasons on the tour, 24 victories, Busch, at 34, finally has a cool rhythm…perhaps a realization that carrying around all that high-strung angst was a needless burden, and ultimately debilitating. Certainly the understanding that, after all those temper-tantrums and angry tirades, his marketability had become rather fragile.
And next week, the sport's final week off of the season, and lead-up to the Brickyard 400, Busch and his wife Patricia plan to really get away from it all – with a five-day vacation in Argentina.
Will this team make the playoffs? What is team owner Barney Visser's big picture game plan – any expansion to a second team, or is everyone satisfied with being a top 'satellite' operation with Childress engines and Childress engineering?
Busch says he's still holding his breath about the playoffs, because "you can lose points real easily, but it's tough to gain the points. So basically from eighth to 18th everybody fits in one shoe box right now."
That's been a rap against the NASCAR point system for years, that drivers can lose a lot of points with just one mistake, not even of their own doing, and yet there is no 'home run' scenario for a driver to gain a bunch of points in an afternoon, say by leading the most laps and winning the race. NASCAR has declined to address that issue for too many years.
Brad Keselowski, fighting out of a long slump (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Busch, in mid-spring, when his cars were fast but his luck was bad, kept philosophical about it all, rather than ranting.
Now his luck is turning.
The Kentucky 400 was a case in point. He calls that "a weird race for us. We didn't have a great car, but we finished sixth.
"When I looked at the podium afterwards, and saw Tony Stewart finished 20th… I was running with Stewart at the beginning of the race and we were both slip-sliding around, trying to get all we could. After 267 laps we're sixth and he's 20th.
"It just shows you sixth through 20th is just that tight, and can change that quick. One pit stop or strategy can put you ahead or get you behind.
"Right now the top five guys each week at the track, when they finish top-five, it's because they had a fast car."
Busch says the top six in the standings – Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Matt Kenseth – have shown an edge over the rest, and rather consistently this season.
"Everybody else is in this big wad, because the competition is so even across the board," Busch says. "It doesn't matter what manufacturer you have, it doesn't matter what team you have."
Ageless Morgan Shepherd, 71, ready to set a record for oldest NASCAR Cup driver here Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Busch says his Michigan race – on the sport's fastest track, with iffy right-front tires – was a turning point, because he played it "too aggressive."
Busch started Michigan on the front row, led the first 21 laps…but spun into the wall.
So instead of overreaching, Busch is trying to settle into a top-five frame of mind, then taking what he can get at the end of the race. "You don't have to win (the next seven weeks, till the Richmond playoff cut), but you have to stay away from those bad finishes.
"If you do just nice, consistent runs, then you control your own destiny going to Richmond."
Busch in the playoffs could make the chase much more interesting. He knows how to aggravate Johnson, and that may be key to anyone beating Johnson for the championship.
"For us to be in the chase is a huge accomplishment for a single-car organization," Busch says. "For me it would be great to be back in the chase, and the fraternity of guys I'm accustomed to hanging out with over the years.
"But the chase is still seven or eight weeks away.
"The best part that Todd tries to tell everybody is that once we make the chase, we're championship-eligible. When you go into Chicago (for the Sept. 15th) opener) you have a shot at the championship.
"But we have to get to that point first. We have to be patient, and we have to do our homework."
Jimmie Johnson: penalized for his car too low...just days after NASCAR let 31 teams escape without penalty for those unapproved safety roof flaps. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
There is pressure here, but it's career pressure. Busch is trying to repair his career, change his reputation, get back in the swing of things. And he's doing it.
"Just working with these guys -- and knowing we have a lot at stake but yet we don't….
"There are some different ways to look at pressure. When you are with a program like Penske, where you have to perform, everything is an A-plus, everything is top-notch. And when you finish 11th in points two years in a row, that's not where you want to be.
"This (situation) has a lot more 'potential,' the blue-sky factor of building this team up. This is much more gratifying."
However it's mid-July, and teams are laying plans for 2014, and Busch's future is still up in the air. Toyota's Joe Gibbs is apparently making a hard run at Busch, for that long awaited fourth Cup team for 2014. How that situation might affect Busch's season from here on is not clear. But it could certainly put pressure on Busch to make a decision, probably sooner rather than later.
"Contract negotiations, and things, are in discussion," he says. "But you try not to let that weigh any on what's going on right now.
"'Right now' is the most important thing. Living in the present.
"There are a lot of irons in the fire (for 2014).
"It's good to run well. Being in the top-10 in points is an accomplishment. Now we've just got to close the door behind us and make sure we are part of the group that is in it.
"We're going nice and smooth; we're trying not to stretch ourselves thin in any area. We know we have a car capable of winning; we just can't force it.
"We're not going to trip over our own shoe laces.
"It's good we've gotten a lot of tough situation out of the way. Now we need to enjoy these good moments and just keep it rolling."