He is the most compelling figure of the 2013 Sprint Cup season, a former champion trying to become the first driver from a single-car team to ever make the Chase. It was only three years ago that Kurt Busch, then driving for Penske Racing, routinely received a thunderclap of boos every time he was introduced to the crowd. Now, Busch -- at times irascible, always supercharged with intensity -- has become an unlikely feel-good story.
To review: Busch, 35, won the inaugural Chase championship in 2004 for Roush-Fenway Racing. The team severed ties with him a year later after he was cited for reckless driving in Phoenix, an act that prompted Roush team president Geoff Smith to famously say that they were "officially retiring as Kurt Busch's apologists." Busch moved to Penske Racing in 2006, but his tenure there was marred by multiple confrontations with reporters and emotional, expletive-laced outbursts directed at team members. Busch and Penske parted ways following the 2011 season.
His career at a crossroads, Busch last season drove for Phoenix Racing, an underfunded lower-tier team. He finished 25th in points and spent the last six races of 2012 with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team that hired him full-time for 2013. The expectations were decidedly low: In 199 career starts, Furniture Row had only three top-five finishes. The notion of Busch contending for a spot in the Chase seemed as far-fetched as him becoming a fan favorite.
But playing the role of the underdog has endeared him to fans, and Busch has responded by authoring what has arguably been the most impressive season of his Cup career. Currently 12th in the standings, he is only six points -- which translates into six positions on the track -- behind Joey Logano for 10th place and the final non-wild card Chase spot. Busch hasn't won a race this season, but he does have six top-five finishes and he's led more laps (368) than Clint Bowyer (currently second in points), Carl Edwards (third) and Kevin Harvick (fourth).
On Tuesday, Busch announced he was leaving Furniture Row at season's end to join Stewart-Haas Racing, one of the sport's elite teams. Will Busch's lame duck status hurt his Chase chances with two races remaining in the regular season? I don't think so. In fact, he's my pick to win on Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"It's exciting to have the future set where 2014 and beyond will go, but at the same time you know it gives you a breath of fresh air coming to the track and to kick butt these next two weeks with the Furniture Row guys," Busch said on Friday. "I think the most important two races in the No. 78 car's history are these next two."
Indeed they are. Busch has reached Victory Lane at Atlanta, a 1.5-mile oval, in two of his last six starts. He has performed well this season on intermediate-length tracks -- coming in third at Michigan two weeks ago -- and I expect him to run near the front all evening and then take his first checkered flag of the season. In the process, he'll come closer to locking down a spot in the Chase and add more intrigue to what has already been a remarkable season for the little team based in Denver, CO.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday night:
1. Joey Logano
Five weeks ago Logano was 18th in the standings and looked like a long shot to even threaten to qualify for the Chase. But since then he's become the hottest driver in the sport. He's reeled off five straight top-10 runs, including a fifth place finish at Bristol last Saturday night. No driver has scored more points during this five-race stretch than Logano.
But he has never run well at Atlanta. In six career starts, his average finish is 26.0 and he's led a grand total of zero laps. However, past hasn't been prologue for Logano this season and I expect another top-10 run from the No. 22 team on Sunday.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, wisely pitted for fuel late at Bristol and finished 10th. If Earnhardt had run out of gas, it would have put him in danger of falling out of the top 10 in the standings. But by giving up a shot at a victory at Bristol, Earnhardt solidified his hold on seventh place and should now comfortably motor into the Chase. He holds a 29-point lead over Logano in 10th place.
Atlanta is Earnhardt's favorite track on the schedule. He finished seventh here last year and he'd surely take a drama-free top-10 result on Sunday.
3. Brad Keselowski
The reigning Cup champion is in danger of missing the Chase. After finishing 30th at Bristol, he fell from eighth to 11th in the standings. He trails Penske Racing teammate Logano by four points for the final non-wild-card Chase spot.
Atlanta recently has been one of Keselowski's best tracks. In his last two starts here his average finish is 4.5. Expect a top-five run from Keselowski on Sunday.
4. Jeff Gordon
Time is running out for Gordon, a four-time champion. He's 13th in the standings and nine points behind Logano.
Gordon has, at times, flashed impressive speed this season, but he's also been involved in more crashes than anyone who is contending for a Chase spot. Four wrecks have resulted in his car being taken to the garage. His average finish in those races: 35.5.
If Gordon can avoid trouble on Sunday, he should have a car capable of winning. He took the checkered flag at Atlanta in 2011 and finished second here last year. I'm picking him to come in second again on Sunday night -- one car-length behind Kurt Busch.