Look who's creeping into contention for a berth in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. It is none other than 2004 series champ Kurt Busch, whose seventh-place run at Pocono on Sunday was his fifth top 10 of the season and his fourth consecutive finish in the top 15. Busch is now a mere 21 points out of 10th place in the standings, which would give him a spot in the Chase.
Normally it would be no big deal for a former champion who is still in the prime of his career (Busch is 34 years old) to be in contention for the Chase. But Busch is no normal former champ. This is a guy who has burned more bridges than General Sherman did in the Civil War. His persistent bad-boy behavior cost him his ride with car owner Jack Roush only one year after he won the 2004 Cup title. It happened again in 2011 when Roger Penske cut ties after six relatively successful seasons because of repeated altercations with other drivers and media members.
So, in 2012, you had a former Cup champion with 24 career victories being forced to scufflle with the low-budget Phoenix Racing. It was no surprise when Busch managed only two top-10 finishes in 29 starts for the team. Even the best drivers are going to struggle when they're placed in mediocre equipment.
That's why it was easy not to expect much from Busch this year after he switched late last season to another underfunded, one-car operation in Furniture Row Racing. In 193 Cup starts before Busch arrived, FRR drivers had managed a total of eight top-10 finishes, all by Regan Smith in 2011 and 2012 (including the team's lone victory, at Darlington in 2011).
Busch took over with six races remaining in the 2012 season and actually posted three top 10s. Still, nobody was rushing to proclaim him a legitimate Chase contender for this year, especially since FRR had never finished better than 24th in the point standings.
That skepticism seemed justified early this season. Busch did manage to put together back-to-back top-5 runs at Bristol and Fontana, but he also finished 20th or worse in five of the first seven races. Following the race at Texas on April 13, he was 24th in the point standings, which was exactly where Smith was last year when FRR let him go.
In the seven races since then, however, Busch has finished in the top 15 six times, including a third-place showing at Charlotte. The only time he has finished worse than 15th during that span was when he got caught up in a wreck at Talladega.
"We've made great strides in the past month," Busch said after the Pocono race. "We need to continue the progression, and I don't see any reason why we can't. We know how to overcome adversity, and the more we perform the way we have been, the better we'll get."
FRR received some criticism last year for the way the team dumped Smith (who is currently driving in the Nationwide Series for the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.), and there was plenty of dubiousness about whether Busch could make any sort of significant difference. But the fact is, his eight top-10 finishes in his first 20 races with the organization is the same number of top 10s the team accumulated in its previous 193 starts. And since it is doubtful that FRR has been able to make wholesale changes in just the past eight months, it would seem that much of the credit for the team's improvement has to go to Busch, though he insists he doesn't see it that way.
"In everybody else's mind this team hasn't deserved the respect of a Hendrick Motorsports or Gibbs or Penske Racing, and therefore it's considered a small team," Busch said. "But in my mind, this is a big team."
A team that Busch is trying to make even bigger.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- Two consecutive finishes outside the top 15 qualified as a serious slump. He bounced back strong at Pocono, leading 128 of 160 laps and winning from the pole. At this rate, it is doubtful that he will slip from the top spot in the rankings before the Chase begins in September.
2. Carl Edwards (2nd) -- Consistent Carl posted his 13th consecutive top-20 finish on Sunday. But he also failed to crack the top 10 for the third week in a row. Edwards maintains the runner-up position for now, especially with the series heading to Michigan, where he has 13 career top 10s in 17 starts.
3. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- Bowyer also has been more steady than flashy this season. He hasn't cracked the top five in the past five races, but he hasn't finished worse than 18th since late March. Still, Bowyer remains winless and is only 59 points ahead of 11th place Jeff Gordon in the standings, so he has some more work to do in order to make the Chase.
4. Kevin Harvick (5th) -- Harvick's ninth-place showing at Pocono was his fourth consecutive top 10. Take away his crashes at Daytona and Talladega, and he has an average finish of 9.25 in the other 12 races this season.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) -- Earnhardt's third-place run at Pocono was his first top 5 in nine races. Now he is heading to the only track where he was won a Sprint Cup race since 2006. He's tied with Johnson for the most top 10s this season (nine), but he needs some victories to be a true title contender.
6. Matt Kenseth (4th) -- Engine problems late in the race at Pocono sent Kenseth tumbling from the top 10 to a 25th-place finish. When his car runs well, he has probably been the second-best driver to Johnson this season, but engine issues have plagued Joe Gibbs Racing.
7. Kyle Busch (10th) -- Busch is undoubtedly one of the five best drivers on the circuit whenever he has a trouble-free race. In his past 12 starts, he's finished in the top six eight times but has wound up outside the top 35 on three occasions.
8. Jeff Gordon (8th) -- Gordon had an uneventful day at Pocono, starting 11th and finishing 12th. Take away a mechanical issue at Texas and an accident at Charlotte, and he has an average finish of 8.37 over the past 10 races.
9. Tony Stewart (unranked) -- Stewart is back in the power rankings for the first time in months, and he is charging hard. After failing to crack the top 10 for nine consecutive races, he's now on a streak of three straight top 10s, with a victory at Dover and a fourth-place run at Pocono.
10. Brad Keselowski (9th) -- Both Keselowski and Kasey Kahne have been struggling lately, but Keselowski barely gets the nod for the final position in the power rankings. However, both drivers need to turn things around quickly in order to ensure a berth in the Chase.