Busch, though, has never lost his ability to drive.
He’s kept his composure, kept that superior skill behind the wheel and kept pace this season with the best in the Cup series.
Yes, Jimmie Johnson is again the driver to beat.
Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are primed to be in the thick of championships contention.
But look who’s lurking not too far behind. Just the 2004 Cup champion who’s found a home at Furniture Row Racing and found a regular spot running up front to put NASCAR on notice that he can still be as good as it gets in a stock car.
Busch is ninth in the points standings entering today’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He’ll start second in the No. 78 Chevrolet at a track where he has three career victories — and he has win No. 1 of this season in sight.
Busch has reeled off three straight top-six finishes and has five top-10s in his last seven races to storm into contention and up the standings.
“For us to be in the Chase is a huge accomplishment for a single-car organization,” Busch said. “For me, it’s great to be back in the Chase and the fraternity of guys I’m accustomed to hanging out with over the years.”
With 24 career Cup wins, Busch had long proven himself as one of the top drivers in the sport. But he’s had more teams (2) than wins (0) the last two seasons and hasn’t pulled into Victory Lane since winning the fall 2011 race at Dover.
He has plenty of time to take the checkered flag this season — not that he necessarily needs a win to make the Chase. With eight races left until the 12-driver field is set for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Busch just needs to keep the steady top-10s coming to stick around.
“You don’t have to win, but you have to stay away from those bad finishes,” Busch said. “If you do just nice, consistent runs, then you control your own destiny going to Richmond.”
Busch knows how easy it is to lose control. He blew rides at multicar teams owned by Jack Roush and Roger Penske because of a lengthy list of confrontations and bad behavior. Out of elite ride options, he hitched a ride last year with James Finch’s underfunded racing team before making a late-season switch to Furniture Row.
He finished 28th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and sprinkled two top-fives in with five finishes of 20th or worse over the first seven races. He was doing well in April at Martinsville until a bad fuel pump and then a brake issue caused his race to end in a fiery crash. The car that had been seventh was dumped to 37th place.
Busch and crew chief Todd Berrier have found the right combination over the last month. Busch has gone from 20th to 17th to 14th to ninth in the standings and suddenly looks like the driver who was always a threat to win at any track.
“Kurt was always hands down to me the guy that I looked to and said, ‘Wow, how did he do that? How did he go that fast? How did he make that happen?’” former teammate Brad Keselowski said. “I always walked away and said that guy was talented.”
While his behavior will always be scrutinized, his outbursts at the media and dustups with other drivers that once landed him on probation have fallen by the wayside this season.
No one’s really waiting for that next high-profile incident — just the next win.
“We can’t force it,” Busch said. “I keep saying it and then I go out there and I try a little bit harder and drive that 101 percent and it steps over the line.”
Busch’s Furniture Row team has been bolstered by a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. He’s a free agent again at the end of the season and could be in the mix to take Harvick’s spot at RCR in 2014. Busch stayed at Berrier’s house in Colorado in the offseason and bonded with the pit crew in North Carolina, calling those visits the “best way” to build a team. But if another top organization like RCR makes a pitch, Busch will listen.
“There are a lot of irons in the fire,” he said. “It’s good to run well. Being in the top 10 in points is an accomplishment. Now we’ve just got to close the door behind us and make sure we are part of the group that is in it.”
And if they do make the Chase?
“If I accomplish something and check that off the box, what’s next,” he asked.
It could mean Busch will be back with a deep-pocketed team where the big boys play.
But take a look at the standings and it’s like he never left.