Kurt Busch was something less than a popular champion in 2004 when he won the Sprint Cup in the first year of the Chase. He was booed during driver introductions prior to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which he entered with an 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson. But Busch drove brilliantly that afternoon, overcoming a wheel falling off and a slow pit stop that dropped him from running in the top five to the mid-20s, to finish fifth and defeat Johnson by eight points.
Busch, in the post-race media conference, hoped that he'd gained fans and respect for earning his place in history. "The fans are entitled to root and to pull against anybody they want to," he said. "And to be in a situation such as mine, the underdog, somebody that came up in this new format, new system, to be able to come up to the top, maybe too quickly, through my career as well, relatively unknown, just a different look, I guess, from the West Coast. And to race too hard too early, wrinkle those fenders and to crumble the spirits of some of those fans, this is definitely a bullet point in my career that will help some of them realize that I'm not such a bad guy, I guess.
"It's been fun to go up against the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., against the favorites of Jeff Gordon and, of course, the favorite, Jimmie Johnson...the way the fans react, I hope that it's more of a positive outcome because I need to do my job as a champion to lead Nextel into their second year."
Busch deserved to gain fans and respect for that drive at Homestead-Miami, accomplished under bone-crunching pressure, but the reality is that it has been a long, slow process in both departments. Busch celebrated his 10-year anniversary in Cup last weekend by finishing fourth despite a speeding penalty that put him 18th at the halfway point. He's never endeared himself to the NASCAR Nation, but they don't boo him like they once did, either.
The issue of respect is a different situation. Yes, Busch is a Cup champion and he has 22 career victories. But many still view his championship as a fluke. He was a good driver with the championship team -- Roush Fenway won in the final year of the old system with Matt Kenseth in 2003 -- and he put together a Chase that was just good enough to win. Busch had finished seventh during the regular season. He opened the Chase with a victory at New Hampshire and had six top-fives and nine top-10s. Busch and crew chief Jimmy Fennig found the magic at the right time.
Busch's season stats didn't compare to Johnson's or the third place Jeff Gordon, who was 16 points behind. Busch had three wins, 10 top-fives and 21 top-10s in 2004; Johnson had eight wins, 20 top-fives and 23 top-10s, and Gordon had five wins, 16 top-fives and 25 top-10s. Certainly, even Busch's detractors had to admit that he did the job when it counted, but more people were talking about how Johnson had lost the championship than how Busch had won it.
Busch remains a controversial figure in NASCAR. His run-ins with Jimmy Spencer early in his career are legendary -- Spencer punched Busch, who was sitting in his car in the garage, in the face following a race at Michigan in 2003. It was the climax of a feud that began in 2001 at Phoenix. Busch also has had confrontations with Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle. This year, Busch and Johnson have gone at it, verbally and on the track. Busch always seems to come out of it looking like, as he said in 2004, "the bad guy."
After moving to Penske Racing in 2005, Busch has matured personally under the guidance of team owner Roger Penske, who is an expert in image building and temper control. It's been a period of growth for Busch, who has developed into a better driver and spokesman while attracting some fans.
Busch was fourth in the points last season, his highest ranking since 2004. He's fourth this season, 59 points behind leader Denny Hamlin, entering the Chase's third race, at Kansas City on Sunday. Busch has been solid all season, with two wins, nine top-fives and 16 top-10s, tying him for most in the series with his brother Kyle. Kurt, the only Dodge driver in the Chase, is a legitimate contender.
Every driver in the Chase has multiple reasons for wanting to win it more than anything he's ever done. Johnson is going for five in a row, further establishing himself in the record books. Jeff Gordon is going for his fifth Cup championship, which puts him behind only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Harvick are trying to break through for the first time. It's about money and prestige for all 12. But for Kurt Busch, winning the Chase this year is about gaining the respect he deserves.