BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Before a race at a track like Bristol Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch has a mental checklist of items he goes though. Protect the car. Don't force the issue on restarts. Work the high groove. Watch out for other vehicles checking up in front of him.
And these days, there's something else -- block out the outside world.
Busch and his Furniture Row Racing team got another Sprint Cup Series weekend off to another good start, posting the second-fastest speed in final practice and qualifying second for Saturday night's event. And it's happening amid constant questions of where Busch will compete in 2014, queries that gained a large degree of traction Friday when Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli confirmed his team is actively pursuing Busch to drive a fourth car for Tony Stewart's organization next year.
Busch, the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series, has also spoken with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing about the No. 42 car that will open up following Juan Pablo Montoya's departure after this season. He's been in ongoing negotiations with Furniture Row Racing, which has made no secret of its desire to keep him. And yet only one of those organizations can offer a championship pedigree and potential high-powered teammates like Stewart and Kevin Harvick, who will join SHR next year.
Even so, Busch on Friday offered no indication of where he might end up.
"It's nice when when the phone's ringing, and people are wondering what my future plans are, and people are wanting me to be a part of a program with them," Busch said. "It's been a journey to say the least since things turned at the end of 2011. It's just nice to have the ability to find good rides, and be in one. To build with these guys into the future is a possibility. And then to have the outside guys knocking on the door saying, hey, we want you to drive -- it's a good confidence-booster to say the least."
The end of 2011 is when Busch split with Penske Racing, a breakup that sent him into a career wilderness. He began his rebound driving for a Phoenix Racing team that had limited sponsorship. Then he moved to Furniture Row, which Busch has carried to new heights -- ninth in the standings with three races remaining in the regular season, the closest the No. 78 team has ever been to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Although Busch is still looking for his first race win since 2011 -- and for the No. 78 team just its second ever -- that hasn't detracted what he's done with the Denver-based outfit.
"We're three weeks away from the Chase, and that's what our focus is now," Busch said. "We don't have to win to make this Chase. Even if we had a win right now, we would be not guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Consistency is what gets you in, and consistency wins the championship; you just have to ramp it up a notch once you're in the Chase. Right now, blinders are on, and we're full-focused on making sure we get nice, consistency finishes."
In the meantime, though, there's the question of next season. Busch has provided no clues as to his eventual destination, but goes out of his way to compliment the members of his current team. Friday he scraped the wall with 30 minutes left in final practice hard enough to contemplate a backup car. But his crew fixed the damage and got him out for a qualifying effort that netted Busch's seventh front-row starting position of the season.
It all makes a choice for next season that much more complicated.
"The guys know that this is the time now," Busch said. "They are all shaking my hand saying thanks, and they're also saying, 'Let's do this again next year,' and I'm like, 'Heck yeah, I'm right there with you.' We have to stay focused on the present as well as balance the future, and it's a tough thing to do. You hope you can do it behind the scenes where it's not out in the public. But today was a great reminder of how hard you have to work in this sport. When things go wrong, you have to have talented guys to pick you up."
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