Kasey Kahne did in March. Can he repeat in August? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Kyle Busch? That's always a good bet here. And it is again in Saturday night's Bristol 500.
But he'll have to make quite a comeback.
Busch, whose older brother Kurt has become one of the hottest stories at the moment on the stock car tour, says he's not sure what to expect in this race, set for green at 7:30 p.m. ET.
But he showed a bit of what to anticipate when he spun out in qualifying.
Teammate Denny Hamlin, winner here a year ago, edged Kurt Busch for the pole Friday evening, at 128.969 mph. That's a bit slower than in March here, but it's much faster than last year, by about four miles an hour.
Kyle swept all three NASCAR races here in 2010. "It hasn't been done in the three years since," Kyle says. "There could be a chance for me to do it again, but this track has changed so much it may not come.
"They ruined this track when they ground it (last summer)....so now there's no bottom groove, it's all top," Kyle complains.
"As soon as you get up in the top, and run your right-sides in the smooth-ground stuff, it's two-tenths faster. But you're fighting on the razor's edge, because if you overstep that boundary, you're in the fence. We saw a few cars -- myself included -- get up too high and lose all grip.
"That's where you've got to run. So it's going to be a train race around the top."
In fact Kyle says the groove will actually move up even higher during the race.
"I'm actually surprised it's that high right now; that's the highest it's been in practice here in a long time.
"Guys just know they have to get up there, and they have to setup for up there... because it's different than what it is on the bottom. You can run a lap around the top and run a 15.50... and try to go down to the bottom and run a lap time down there and you're in the 15.90s. So there is absolutely no way that you're going to be able to pass down low."
Denny Hamlin, Bristol winner last summer, on the comeback trail much of this season, on the pole for Saturday night's 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Of course this newly designed high groove is only two races old, and Kasey Kahne surprised everyone last summer when crew chief Kenny Francis set up for the high line. So who knows what really to expect here this time around.
"In March (when Kahne won), all you had to do is get to the outside and maintain. You couldn’t pass anybody," Kyle says.
"I was on Kasey's bumper for the last 20 laps. I couldn't do anything getting lower than him and trying to pass him.
"And Brad (Keselowski) was up my butt too the last 20 laps and couldn't do anything with me.
"It's frustrating when you get in those situations."
Bristol's front row: Denny Hamlin (L) and Kurt Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Here's something to consider: Busch versus Busch.
-- Over the last 5-1/2 years, Kurt Busch has won seven times, Kyle Busch has won 23 times.
-- Kurt's last tour win was at Dover in October 2011. Since then Kyle has won four times.
But suddenly Kurt Busch is the big story on the stock car tour. No, he is still winless this season, after a ragged, winless 2012. But he's been knocking on the door, now looking at making the playoffs, and he could easily have a couple of wins by now.
Not only that, but Kurt Busch has been undergoing a remarkable transformation, from 'outlaw,' angry driver, to polished and focused.
Friday here was yet another example of the 'new' Kurt Busch. He slapped the wall, just moments after posting the quickest lap. His crew repaired the car, and Busch put it on the front row.
Does he need to win here?
No. His goal is simple -- make the chase....so don't make mistakes these next three races, here, Atlanta and Richmond.
Friday here, Kurt says ruefully, was "eventful.
"I got a little loose getting into turn three, and it took me all the way until turn four to scrub the fence. We pancaked the right side just enough to where we had to quit practice the last half hour and fix the car.
"You're right on that edge -- Do you fix it, or do you pull out the backup.
"It was so cool to feel the energy from my guys. They all rolled their sleeves up. They all looked at the clock and said we've got an hour and a half to fix this. And we got it in."
NASCAR inspectors didn't make it easy, though. "We had trouble getting it through the tech line because the lasers inspect the car with a little bit more detail than our tape measures. So we had to go through the tech line two or three times, and got out to the grid right before it was our turn.
"It's been great to go into an old-school thrash like we did today and come out with an outside pole."
Mark Martin: what can he do in Tony Stewart's car? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So Kurt's talks about 2014 -- with Joe Gibbs and most recently with Tony Stewart and Gene Haas -- have to be a distraction, he concedes. But Busch and the team are handling it about as well as could be expected.
And regardless of what team Kurt Busch drives for next season, he has made it clear that if car owner Barney Visser can put a winning driver in his cars, then Todd Berrier and crew can deliver a race-winning machine.
That has to bode well for whatever happens next for Visser and Berrier.
Busch says his focus is on making the playoffs, which still isn't guaranteed.
"We don't have to win to make this chase," Kurt points out. "Even if we had a win right now, we would be not guaranteed a spot in the chase.
"Consistency is what gets you in, and consistency wins the championship.
"You just have to ramp it up a notch once you're in the chase.
"So right now the blinders are on. We are full-focus on just making sure we get nice, consistent finishes."
And how is his crew taking this huge distraction?
"The guys know this is the time, now, and they are all shaking my hand, saying 'Thanks. Let's do this again next year.'
"And I'm like 'Yeah, heck yeah. I'm right there with you.'
"We have to stay focused on the present,as well as balance the future. And it's a tough thing to do.
"You hope you could do it behind the scenes, not out in the public."
But no such luck. And it is all surprising, this sudden push by Greg Zipadelli, Stewart and Gene Haas, and presumably Chevrolet officials too, to put Kurt Busch in a Chevy again next season.
"It's like a checklist each time you get in the car," Kurt says. "One is to block out the outside world, and know that what is at hand right now is a qualifying run, tomorrow is 500 laps at Bristol where I have to protect my car and make sure we don't try to push any issues on restarts.
"To have the outside guys knocking on the door, going 'Hey, we want you to drive,' it's a good confidence booster, to say the least."
It has all been a remarkable season of poise for Kurt Busch, perhaps his finest hours in this sport.
So, hey, why not step outside the box for a moment, he thinks: "I'm just sitting here thinking, with Bristol as cool as this place is, and the excitement level, could we move this race into the chase? Why couldn't this be the second race in the chase?
"And then why can't we put dirt on this place and run here in March on dirt? I think that would be awesome. Every ticket $35. That would be pretty sweet. That's my vote for next March."
At this point Kurt Busch is on a roll:
"I can get on my soapbox again and talk: I think there should be a lottery system, or where you have to buy a chase date.
"And the championship race, the final race, should have to bid just like you bid on the Super Bowl. It should move around a little bit.
"Yeah, we can't probably race in Chicago in November. It might be a little too cold. But there are a half-dozen tracks that I think could be a series finale, and I think they should have to bid."
Hey, don't forget Brad Keselowski. He should easily be top-three in Saturday night's 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)