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Kurt Busch is finally rolling again....can he keep it up?

   Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR tour champ (here with new wife Eva, after winning Atlanta), may finally be ready to challenge for another title (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Okay, it's again time for Kurt Busch to put up or shut up.
   Yes, Atlanta: victory. Yes, Daytona: strong, and California: strong. And that was a very nice comeback at Bristol last weekend, after a ragged day.
   A good run here in Sunday's Martinsville 500 could seal the deal that Busch, crew chief Pat Tryson and car owner Roger Penske are back in gear, at long last.
   However, there is the nagging sense that this operation still isn't quite over the hump.
   This is Busch's fourth season with Penske, and he's won at least one race every year, but he just hasn't been very consistent, to put it mildly. Last season things were so ragged that Penske's hauler seemed to carry its own storm clouds. Busch had five DNFs, and he failed to make the playoff cut.
    But this season so far Busch – Kurt Busch, not just Kyle – has been the buzz.
   Kurt Busch has shown the horsepower, Tryson seems back in form on top of the box, and they've got momentum finally.
   Plus Kurt Busch is starting second in this 500.
    Unfortunately he's starting next to Jeff Gordon, who has to be favored, not just because he's running strong this season, not just because he's won seven times at Martinsville Speedway (it must be deafening in his home when all those grandfather clocks go off every hour), but because he's got the first pit box at the far end of pit road – a major advantage here.
   Jimmie Johnson gets service on Martinsville's cramped pit road. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In fact, it would not be so far as to say this 500 is Gordon's to lose. He has everything going for him….including Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, probably his two toughest challengers here, far behind him for the start.
    Busch, who has been strong too this year, after a couple down seasons, won Atlanta. But he was never in the game at Bristol last weekend, perhaps a telling weak spot in his game.
    Still Busch is more upbeat now than in a long time.
    But he's realistic – to win he'll have to beat Gordon and Johnson, and maybe even Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran second here last fall but who has slipped in a funky slump this year.
   "Anytime you're in a Hendrick car, you're definitely going to have a good shot at dominating the day and going into victory lane," Busch says. "And Jeff is very strong.  And Jimmie is strong. 
   "The pit box is just icing on the cake. It's like the rich getting richer. It just seems to come your way.
   "When you're in that first pit box, it continues to add up throughout the day.  It's only going to make Jeff Gordon stronger."
    But Goodyear's new, softer tires could be an issue. Rain has kept NASCAR's drivers and crews from getting enough laps down to figure out a game plan. That could make for some pit stop gambles Sunday afternoon – with some crews perhaps 'short-pitting,' or stopping well before fuel runs out, if new tires are significantly faster than worn tires. An untimely caution, however, could cause that strategy to backfire.
   At least the weather should be good. Sunny skies are forecast, partly cloudy maybe, with winds, and a high of 58 (which should increase grip).
    Rain Saturday forced NASCAR to postpone the Kroger 250 Truck race until noon Monday.
    Jamie McMurray usually gets along with everyone....but he may figure he owes Juan Pablo Montoya one for that Bristol spin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    On the potentially troublesome side of things Sunday, drivers may want to steer clear of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray if those two get close to each other.
   That Bristol spat between Montoya and McMurray clearly isn't over.
   Montoya drop-kicked McMurray at Bristol, and McMurray wasn't happy, naturally.
   Montoya has tried to make amends this weekend, but McMurray has rebuffed him.
   Montoya, now running Chevrolets with Richard Childress horsepower, has more car to work with that he's had the last couple of seasons, and he's not been shy about using it. During his Formula One days Montoya earned quite a reputation for aggressive driving; in fact that crash at Indianapolis is in part blamed for his decision to leave F1 for NASCAR.
 But, ah, Jamie, is it okay if we just leave this up to you and Juan Pablo? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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