LOUDON, N.H. ? In what was perhaps his best performance to date behind the wheel of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, Kurt Busch finished a very unsatisfying 31st.
He has had better finishes this year, for certain, but never has Busch seemed closer to a return to the winner's circle.
Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, led 102 laps of the 302 that made up Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Through the season's first 18 events, he had led a total of 160.
It was a race that saw him battle younger brother Kyle Busch early, and race his way back through the field on at least two occasions when pit stop strategy dropped him out of the top 10.
But the day took a turn for the worse on lap 225 when Busch, 34, was involved in a four-car incident in Turn 1. Racing for the eighth position, Busch shot inside of Matt Kenseth and pulled up in front of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, only to have the back end of his Chevrolet spin around.
Ryan Newman, running on the outside, was collected in the spin while Kasey Kahne, running behind Kenseth, got into the back of the JGR driver.
Newman's Stewart-Haas Racing entry was too severely damaged to repair, and he finished 39th, done for the day after 225 laps. The cars of Kenseth (ninth) and Kahne (11th), meanwhile, seemed no worse for wear.
"I just got hit from behind," Busch said while waiting for his crew to make repairs to his car. "There was three-wide action, everybody's going hard ?
"The car gets light when there is no air on the rear spoiler back there."
Newman said older tires on his car put him "in a bad spot" but that "I guess it was Kurt that went underneath three-wide and bypassed (Kenseth) ? and clipped us and knocked us into the fence and took himself out. That was the best I could tell.
"I guess (Kenseth) had a little influence on it."
Kenseth said there was nothing wrong with Busch's move to make it three-wide in the turn, but he though Busch was going too fast to make the corner without incident.
"I got out of (the gas) as much as I could get out of it; he went sliding past me," Kenseth said. "I don't think he hit me on the way by but we were pretty darn close.
"He just went sliding up past me and cleaned out the 39. It's a good thing I lifted because all three of us would have been in the fence. I had to stop. That cost us all our track position, which here is everything."
A seven-week run packed with five top-10 finishes had carried Busch into the top-10 in points, and made the team one of the season's first-half surprises.
Sunday's finish, however, dropped him from ninth to 14th in the standings.
"We took a hit in the points, but we're still in the Chase hunt -- that's the good news," he said. "But we need to have more consistency and can't have these kinds of finishes with only seven races remaining before the Chase."