Kurt Busch on verge of improbable Chase berth
The pre-Kurt Busch numbers at Furniture Row Racing weren't pretty: one win, three top-five finishes, eight top-10s and a measly 48 laps led in almost 200 races.
The numbers since Busch climbed into the No. 78 Chevrolet with six races left last season? Six top-five finishes, 14 top-10s and 314 laps led.
One other thing - he also has Furniture Row on the verge of its first berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Busch headed into Saturday night's race at Bristol Motor Speedway ranked ninth in the standings and in position to claim one of the 12 spots in the Chase.
It's an improbable turnaround for Busch, who despite 24 career victories and the 2004 championship hit rock bottom in 2011 when he was fired from Penske Racing because of his combustible temper. And it's unbelievable that he's done it with a single-car team that pre-Busch has never challenged for anything.
''It's been a journey, to say the least, since things turned at the end of 2011,'' Busch said.
The journey could be headed for another big twist.
As Furniture Row braces for what could be a monumental moment in team history, Busch is facing a decision that could turn the team upside down. He's being courted by Stewart-Haas Racing, which would expand to a fourth car if Busch would like to join the organization, and Furniture Row is trying desperately to keep the driver.
SHR currently fields cars for co-owner and three-time champion Tony Stewart, who is sidelined at least until February with a broken leg, and Danica Patrick. Kevin Harvick is joining the team next year, and team co-owner Gene Haas is committed to sponsoring a car for Busch out of pocket.
''It's nice when the phone is ringing and people are asking what my future plans are and people want me to be part of a program with them,'' Busch said. ''It's nice to have the ability to find good rides, and be in one and to build into the future, and to have the outside guys knocking on the door saying we want to you to drive. It's a good confidence booster, to say the least.''
So Busch has a decision to make, and the timing couldn't be worse for Furniture Row, which has Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond to lock down the coveted Chase berth.
Making the Chase was a goal owner Barney Visser had set for the team at the start of the season.
''Our owner put it out there, and he truly believed that it was possible, probably more so than some of us who had been in the sport a long time,'' Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone said. ''But from his perspective, when he looked at the people we have, the cars we were building, bringing Kurt on board, he was adding numbers up and he came to a sum that he felt equaled this. Maybe the rest of us felt `Man, that's going to be hard to do.' But he really led the charge and when the belief is at the top like that, it trickles down.''
There's a difference this year at Furniture Row, where the relationship between driver and crew began to shift several months ago into a tighter more cohesive group. The comfort level was palpable, Garone said, and the performance of the cars began to pick up.
As Busch got settled in with the team, and strong finishes became regular, the team began to believe in its ability. The last month has been nearly unstoppable as Busch has logged finishes of third at Pocono, ninth at Watkins Glen and third at Michigan to climb from 14th to ninth in the standings.
He also has qualified on the front row seven times this season, including Saturday night at Bristol, where he qualified second.
''We expect to make the Chase, we expect to be in a fight, fists swinging, body panels crunched, paint flying and make the Chase,'' Garone said. ''And if we don't do that, we are going to step back, take a deep breath, and say `let's go win a race' because we would be disappointed based on where we are sitting right now.''
But things took a disastrous turn at Bristol, where the night turned sour less than 100 laps into the race.
Busch passed Denny Hamlin for the lead shortly after the race began, but developed a vibration on his Chevrolet after leading 54 laps. He dropped to fifth, headed to pit road for a repair, but was stymied by both a slow stop and a speeding penalty. He had to pit again, dropping him three laps and into 39th place, and contact with Josh Wise caused damage to his car that sent him back to pit road.
He told his crew that the vibration hadn't been corrected the first time, and crew chief Todd Berrier called him into the garage for a lengthy repair.
He asked over his radio if he'd done something to create the problems on the car and Berrier assured him it was just a faulty part. Busch then tried to lift the crew's spirits: ''We ain't done. We ain't done yet,'' he radioed.
Indeed, he returned to the track in 41st place, 26 laps behind the leader.