Busch hopes consistency more than victories lead to Chase happiness

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Still, in spite of not taking the checkered flag in any of his past 21 races, he has succeeded, in the minds of some observers, in altering his all-out style to a more conservative approach that focuses on doing enough to make the Chase.

"Well, there's a little bit of truth to that, but to be honest, we haven't quite had the luck," Busch said. "Our best finishes have been with our worst cars. At Bristol, we were probably a 15th place car and we finished ninth, and Texas we were a 13th place car and ran third. So in the races in which we had one of the best cars that could have won the race, which was Martinsville, we ended up getting wrecked, and again at Phoenix, the pit call didn't quite go our way and we ended up eighth. We've had some good runs, we haven't really had that dominant car yet that we've been able to capitalize with or have been that lucky with to take a finish and get a win with it."

After his inconsistency last season left him outside the Chase for the first time in five seasons, Busch teamed with a new crew chief, Dave Rogers, which prompts one to question whether this year's winless string is tied to a chemistry still developing between driver and chief.

"No, I don't think so," Busch said. "Yeah, we're getting better as weeks go on and as we get going a little bit more and more, but as of right now, Dave and I are working great together. During the race, we might fall back a little bit, but I'm always ready for the next pit stop and getting some changes made and get up there and get better.

"I like Dave a lot. He's really, really smart. It seems our good days, we don't capitalize on, but we make our bad days better. That's been the big difference. Last year, we'd be running up front and we would be making changes to the car and going backward. This year, it seems that we fix the cars more often than we don't."

Busch's best finish in nine races this year has been third at Texas, a race where he wasn't strong enough to run up front until the closing laps. He and Rogers made the wrong call on tires at Phoenix, coming in as the leader and taking four on a late-race stop and getting stuck behind cars who took two. But taking two late at Texas elevated the No. 18 Toyota's track position and Busch made it work for third.

"We had a good tire strategy there; we took two tires and we were able to get up front and challenge for the win," Busch said. "I was under Denny Hamlin, trying to pass him for the win, but my car was a little too tight right there and if I'd tried any harder, I'd have gotten into him and wrecked us both, so I just made sure we finished the race."

Busch remains one of the busiest drivers in NASCAR, also competing regularly in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. And if there's a late-model race somewhere on an off-day from NASCAR, he'll show up to race in it, too. There are those in the garage who believe all that extra racing is a distraction that hurts Busch's chances of winning a Cup championship

Busch, though, believes the more he races, the better he gets.

"That's why I do it," he explained. "Anytime I can get behind the wheel, any laps I can get is always better for me. I feel I learn more behind the wheel than maybe just sitting there watching it on TV. Last year I won a Nationwide championship racing all the Cup races and Truck races and everything I did."

Busch says the secret to winning a championship, in any series, is having top-five cars in every race.

"I'm not saying it's easy to win a championship, but the Nationwide went well for us last year," Busch said. "When you have good cars and could run up front and finish up front every week, that seems to be what the characteristic [of a championship] is.

"You look at Jimmie Johnson, the guy, every single weekend, can finish in the top five and that's what it takes. You have to have that opportunity. You can't be running 15th and maybe get an eighth-place finish. You have to be running top five to take a top five."

Busch's wait for his first victory this season could come to an end Saturday night at Richmond, one of his best tracks -- where he has one victory and eight top-fives (including three second places) in 10 starts. It would be perfect timing for a birthday celebration for Busch, who will turn 25 on Sunday. In his sixth full Cup season, it's an age where a new maturity about racing is starting to show.