Kurt Busch was in his fourth Sprint Cup season in 2004 when he won the championship, edging Jimmie Johnson by eight points in the inaugural Chase. Driving a Roush Fenway Ford, Busch had been seventh in the regular season and put together a 10-race Chase with six top-5s and nine top-10s, including one victory that took him to NASCAR's pinnacle at age 26.
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 Pat Tryson departed following 2009, Steve Addington became the No. 2's crew chief.
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 Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. are 25th and 28th, respectively, and don't have a top-10 finish between them. You can draw a conclusion the Dodge is competitive, but doesn't have any advantage over the Chevrolets from Childress, Hendrick and Stewart-Haas or the Toyotas from Gibbs. Roush Fenway has been behind, but they've closed the gap heading for the Chase. Busch and the No. 2 team are doing it with first-rate execution and limiting their mistakes.
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 Marcos Ambrose, an accomplished road racer, with a couple of laps to go. Team owner Roger Penske, once a great road racer, saw Watkins Glen as another step in Busch's improvement.
"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 (Juan Pablo) Montoya and the road racers who are so good and to see the car run as well as it did, it's a credit to him. He has certainly matured.
"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. Kevin Harvick has had a tremendous regular season, consistently fast and relatively mistake free, much like Busch's, but with slightly superior performance. Denny Hamlin has the speed to run at the front. They're Busch's competition for the Cup and he's in their class. The championship is within Busch's reach.