Despite sitting win-less through the first 10 races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season with a 10th-place ranking in the championship standings, it’s starting to feel like Kurt Busch is asserting himself as a bonafide championship contender as he has gutted out impressive top-10 finishes with the odds stacked against him over the last two races.
The Las Vegas-native’s latest Herculean effort came after his No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1 LE failed pre-race inspection three times before Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Due to the inspection woes, Busch would forfeit his 12th-starting position to start from the rear. Already a tough penalty at a track as difficult as Atlanta, but to make matters worse, Busch also had to serve a pass-through penalty to start the race. Once the 41-year old served his penalty, he had basically spotted the entire field a lap.
While Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. set a feverish pace, Busch was able to work his way into free pass contention by the time the competition caution came out at lap 26.
When the green flag came back out on lap 31, the 2004 Cup Series champion wasted little time carving his way back through the field. By lap 55, Busch had rocketed to 14th. But just as it appeared he was about to show himself as a contender for the race win, the handling went away on the No. 1 machine.
“I don’t know where to begin,” Busch seethed to his crew on the radio toward the end of Stage 1. “I’m too fucking tight on entry and fucking terrible in traffic.”
Despite the obvious frustration, crew chief Matt McCall took notes and would adjust on the car throughout the race.
As McCall attempted to get the car tuned up through all of Stage 2, Busch would stay focused.
As the race drug on into the closing portions, Busch had finally found the handle and he was eighth heading into his final pit stop of the day. Although Busch would ultimately lose two spots and fall to 10th after the pit sequence concluded, he would go into rally mode over the final 54 laps.
As the laps clicked off, Busch would flex his muscle while the tires of his competitors began to wear out. Down the stretch, Busch passed Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson for position, and Clint Bowyer — who was also ahead of him — cut a tire in the closing laps.
The end result: Busch took another trying day and turned it into a hard-fought sixth-place effort.
Although during portions of the race Busch was heated on the radio, when he crawled from his car after a hot and muggy day in Georgia, Busch was satisfied with his fourth-consecutive top-10 finish (his longest such streak since joining Chip Ganassi Racing).
“My boys, Matt McCall and everybody at Ganassi, were pushing hard and apparently we didn’t pass tech like we were supposed to,” Busch explained. “So, we had to start in the back and do a drive-through. We were fifth or sixth after we came back out, but we were a lap down and had to race hard to be in the position for the lucky dog. The car was dialed in right from the start and we got our lap back early on. As the race went on, man, just loose – tight – loose – tight, and then ended up P-6!”
According to his crew chief McCall, it was all hands on deck for what turned out to be another great run.
“We had a full effort from everyone today,” McCall said. “We created a deficit for ourselves with issues in pre-race inspection, having to start at the rear and serve a pass-thru penalty to start the race. The driver did a great job racing to stay in position for the free pass, to get back on the lead lap at the competition caution on lap 25, after that we just worked on trying to make the car better. We had good long run speed, but the short-runs near the stage breaks were tough. Kurt did a great job of driving up through the field on the last long green-flag run to score another top-10 finish. Really proud of this Monster Energy team today.”
Sure while guys like Kevin Harvick, who won on Sunday, and Brad Keselowski, who also has two wins this season, continue to pile on wins, it doesn’t seem super impressive on paper that Busch ended up with a seventh-place finish at Bristol and a sixth-place finish at Atlanta. But when you factor in the adversity that the team overcame on Sunday at Atlanta, and the absolutely battered car that they salvaged a good run with in Bristol, and you’re starting to see the makings of a championship contender.
They are becoming a well-oiled machine. Even on their worst days, they are finding ways to salvage really good runs.
If the old adage that metal sharpens metal proves true, this team will be battle tested and ready when Playoff time comes around.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.