Kurt surprised Jimmie Johnson … and himself!

Kurt Busch celebrates in Victory Lane after the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Matthew T. Thacker

Well, we put another exciting short-track race in the books Sunday at the legendary Martinsville Speedway. I have always loved the short tracks. I loved them when I drove and I love them today as a fan. Short tracks create the most fun and exhilarating racing while at the same time creating some hurt feelings along the way.

Sure, Jimmie Johnson dominated the race, but it wasn’t like he was out there for a simple Sunday drive. He had to race hard because there were guys like Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and eventual race winner Kurt Busch pressuring Jimmie hard all day.

I think everyone will agree that Kurt surprised everyone Sunday. Overall and up until Sunday, his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing hadn’t gone anywhere near like he had hoped. His first four races this season were pretty dismal. Two weeks ago he was able to turn things around with a great finish and now here he was Sunday in Victory Lane.

That in and of itself didn’t come easy. Kurt had to overcome an incident on pit road with Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski. See, that’s the thing about short track racing and Martinsville Speedway, in particular. You can get yourself in just as much trouble on pit road as you can out on the racetrack.

Kurt Busch rips what he says was 'punk-a** move'

Among the three cars, Brad took the blunt of the damage. So much so that Brad had to go to the garage and when he finally was able to return, the front of his car had been all chopped up to pieces. I guess it was probably pretty obvious that when he returned, Brad had a score to settle with Kurt.

Now the cool thing about short track racing and Martinsville in particular is you can dish out payback in pretty good fashion because you aren’t going that fast, so the risk of you hurting another driver or getting hurt yourself is minimal. I’€™m not condoning what Brad did, but let’s face it: Martinsville is the slowest track on the circuit, so if there is going to be payback, that’s the place you’d want it to happen.

What was really interesting about Brad’s situation was I saw him do something I’d seen in the past with older drivers. Brad didn’t just go out there to immediately stuff Kurt in the fence. Brad went out there to annoy the daylights out of Kurt. He bumped Kurt. He shoved him and roughed him up when he could. He rode along with Kurt just to aggravate him.

One thing I also saw Sunday was a new Kurt Busch. At one point after the pit road incident, he said on the radio that they were done and their day ruined. In the past, I’ve seen Kurt take something like that and continue the tailspin the rest of the afternoon. I don’t know who it was, whether it was his spotter, his crew chief or owner Gene Haas, but someone got in Kurt’s ear, got his attitude turned around and Kurt rebounded to win the race. Believe me, that’s a big change from what we’€™ve seen in the past with Kurt.

He and I have talked about this recently. Kurt admitted that in the past he could latch onto one bad thing that happened and then let it dictate the rest of the day. Kurt has learned to let go of that. It happened, he got mad, but he’€™s learned to get over it and move on. That’s a big positive change for Kurt and I am proud of him for doing it.

I would wager that nobody was more surprised to see Kurt closing and closing fast on him than Jimmie Johnson. Conversely, Kurt didn’t think he could beat Jimmie. Kurt admitted in his post-race interviews that he really didn’t think it was possible. Jimmie is the king of Martinsville with eight wins. It wasn’t meant to be for Jimmie to get his ninth Grandfather Clock. Kurt drove by him and Jimmie’s car was simply too loose by the end of the race to catch Kurt, and Kurt went on to win the race.

This win was huge for Kurt. He hadn’t won a race since Dover in 2011. It was his first win for his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing. While it doesn’t automatically guarantee it, after only six races, Kurt is now also sitting in really fine shape to make this year’s Chase.

I think the 2013 season driving for Furniture Row Racing, that single-car operation out of Denver, did a world of good for Kurt. Even though they didn’t win, they really had a magical season. They won a bunch of poles, they were fast every time they unloaded and they even made NASCAR history by making the Chase.

I think Kurt learned from that experience. I think not only did he regain his confidence in his own ability but he got an up-close look at how far great team chemistry can carry an organization.

When the opportunity came to drive for Gene Haas, I think Kurt knew he could take all the positives from the 2013 season and take them to the next level at Stewart-Haas Racing. They have a strong lineup of drivers there and they have an even stronger alliance with Hendrick Motorsports.

Was Rick Hendrick disappointed one of his four cars didn’€™t win on the 30th anniversary of his first-ever Cup win at Martinsville? Sure he was — that’s human nature. Was he mad because he got beat by one of the teams he has an alliance with? Absolutely not.

Rick is a big believer in giving back or paying forward, as some folks like to put it. When Rick started out in Cup racing he had a shoestring operation. He rented everything. He had five employees and the most one of them made was $500 a week. Rick had help along the way. He never forgot that. When he ultimately became so successful in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Rick tried to help others who needed help.

Rick always remembered how it was when he started, so he never hesitated when folks like Coach Joe Gibbs or Tony Stewart and Gene Haas or a host of others came asking for help. Rick loves this sport, and being able to bring others into the sport that shared that same passion was something Rick readily tries to do.

Speaking of Joe Gibbs and Joe Gibbs Racing, they had to be pretty disappointed when they left Martinsville Sunday night. They felt they had cars that could win. In fact, Denny Hamlin who was back behind the wheel from missing the Fontana race due to illness actually predicted he would win the Martinsville race. It didn’€™t work out anywhere near what he had hoped. Come the end of the race, Denny wasn’t anywhere near the front. In fact he finished clear back in 19th spot.

I also know that if I am Jimmie Johnson, I would want to know if there are any more Busch brothers that he doesn’t know about. Think about it, he dominates Fontana two weeks ago only to lose to Kyle Busch. He dominates Martinsville on Sunday only to lose the race in the closing laps to Kyle’s older brother. Jimmie’s probably going to head to Texas this week checking the lineup to see if there is yet another Busch in the lineup.

We’ve now had our sixth race of the year and our sixth different winner. Kurt’s win marks the first time this season an organization — Stewart Haas Racing — has had multiple wins. That’s just more proof for something I have been saying for weeks: These drivers, teams and cars are putting on the best show our sport has ever seen. The rule changes and tweaks NASCAR implemented in the offseason really have worked.

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The only thing that is making me a little bit nervous is NASCAR is already talking about making changes for next year. They are talking about reducing horsepower in these cars beginning in 2015. I sure hope they think long and hard before making too many changes, because our sport has got it as good as I’ve ever seen it.

So next up we’re headed to the Lone Star State this weekend. You can sum up Texas Motor Speedway in two words — bad fast. They’ll be flying around that joint at a blistering pace. One thing we have to be concerned about is the same thing we went through at Fontana. Is all this extra downforce, all these new aggressive setups under the cars and all these blazing speeds going to put too much pressure on the Goodyear tires? So we have to keep our eye on that and keep our fingers crossed that we don’t have any tire issues at Texas.

I’m also looking forward to seeing Big Hoss — Texas Motor Speedway’s brand new gigantic video monitor on the backstretch. I’m having lunch Friday with owner Bruton Smith and track president Eddie Gossage. One of the things I plan on asking them is to show my Kentucky Wildcats play on the big screen so I can watch them in the infield.

My Wildcats have come of age during the tournament. They are a bunch of kids, but like that No. 78 car I mentioned earlier with Kurt Busch behind the wheel, they’ve learned that chemistry and trust in one another can take them places no one ever imagined for them.

Would anybody have predicted that Kurt Busch would have won at Martinsville on Sunday? Probably not. Would anybody have predicted that my Kentucky Wildcats would have come this far in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and make it to the Final Four by upsetting Michigan? Well, probably not but I, for one, really enjoyed watching both happen.

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