Busch's best years seemed ahead of him, but he hasn't come close to taking a second title. He's made the Chase, certainly an accomplishment, in three of the previous five seasons with a high-water mark of fourth last year.
Based upon what he's done in the opening 22 races, Busch could be headed for a second championship. It's certainly his best shot since 2004. Busch is vastly more experienced and it shows in leadership of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge. He's driving at the highest level of his career. Put those two factors together and you have the makings of a champion.
It's been a remarkable season for Busch and the No. 2 team. After
There figured to be a period of transition. Teams that contend for titles rarely do it in the first year together, but the No. 2 continued the same upward movement from 2009. The team was sixth in the second race at the Auto Club Speedway in California and won in the fourth race at Atlanta.
Penske is Dodge's only factory-backed team. It also could have gone the other way. Busch is fourth in the points, but teammates
Busch finished second Sunday at Watkins Glen, his best in 20 Cup road course races, and that was another sign of how well he's driving and the team is functioning. Busch passed
"We signed him up five years ago and he has really developed," Penske said. "He's always been a great driver. He was a champion (in 2004), but as I think of his MO today...when you look at Watkins Glen racing against (
"He understands it's a team effort and he's looking forward to continue to give us some more support. Overall, I'm very pleased with the job he's done. I think as we go forward in the future, with the support that Dodge is giving is, it will bode well for us."
There are no more road races on the Cup schedule this year, but Busch's second at Watkins Glen boosted his confidence.
"It was a great effort," he said. "It didn't seem like there was one single hiccup. We got solid pit stops, had solid strategy. Just the way we came together after yesterday's practice, not knowing if we had enough speed, we changed quite a few things on the Miller Lite Dodge.
"Steve Addington, the guys, are very smart. They're on top of their game.
It gave something to me personally to run good on a road course. But it was team satisfaction to change so many things as we did to have some speed (in the race)."
Busch could build some serious momentum in the final four races before the Chase. He was third at Michigan, where Cup races this weekend, in June, third at Bristol in March and won at Atlanta in March. Busch was 18th at Richmond the first time around and he'd undoubtedly like to do better than that to close out the regular season on a high note. But, if he's able to run as competitively in the second stop in the next three races, a repeat at Richmond would only slow his momentum, not end it.
Busch is thinking about adding those 10 bonus points for wins going into the Chase.
"Points are points right now," he said. "Bonus points are the most important to take with you to the Chase. We feel comfortable with our points position. Once the Chase starts, that's when every point counts. That's when you don't need to take risky bump-draft moves or find yourself in a tight position that you don't want to be in."
Busch is the most recent driver to win his first Sprint Cup championship and he's spent five seasons trying to get back there. The Chase appears more wide open than in recent years. Johnson has won the past four and is a threat for a fifth straight.