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Kurt Busch runs small team to the top

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FONTANA, Calif. -- There, walking through the Auto Club Speedway garage sporting a big smile and easy stride, was Sunday's fifth-place finisher Kurt Busch. His pleased and pleasant demeanor was in stark contrast to the post-race chaos of crew scuffles and driver feuds demanding so much attention in the moments following the Auto Club 400.

It was Busch's second straight top-five performance in the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet -- a single car effort that with the former Sprint Cup champion behind the wheel is proving itself every bit as worthy as the uber-teams and perennial favorites it competes alongside.

And lately, it has been better.

The driving display Busch put on in the final laps left no doubt to his intentions: to show this team is for real and that he has never been more motivated.

"I was just telling everybody that this is what it's all about,'' said Busch, who seemed every bit as happy as his younger brother Kyle, who won the race for the large championship Joe Gibbs Racing operation.

"Persevering, digging hard, and bringing it right back up to the front when it counts. You can race 400 miles and be leading every lap like Kyle was and I had a chance to pass him for the lead on that final restart and I took it.

"Normally, I'd have followed him and pushed him and drafted with him and tried to break away from the field,'' explained Busch. "But I went to his outside and it was a move that held him up and took his momentum away, gave me a shot for clean air ? but the car was a little tight on that top side, couldn't quite get the power down and couldn't get in front of him and (Joey) Logano to seal the deal.

"For our Furniture Row Chevy SS, another top-five, this is what it's all about -- just keep plugging away and surprising people.''

Arguably, the surprise is up.

Since Busch joined the team late last year, he has five top 10s in 11 starts. The back-to-back top-five showing is a first ever for the nine-year-old team, which operates out of Denver, far from NASCAR's backyard.  Although Furniture Row Racing started entering Cup races in 2005, it wasn't until 2010 that it actually qualified for every race in a season.

Former driver Regan Smith has the team's only victory -- a dramatic upset in the 2011 Darlington 500.

The team stepped up its program this season by using Richard Childress Racing engines and chassis and hiring the 2004 Cup champion Busch.

And while it hoped for immediate dividends, the pairing has reaped confidence and potential at the very least.

Busch's effort Sunday moved him up three spots in the championship standings to 13th place -- ahead of preseason championship favorites such as last year's title runner-up Clint Bowyer (14th), Richard Childress driver Kevin Harvick (15th), four-time champ Jeff Gordon (18th) and three-time champ Tony Stewart (22nd).

This is a team that wrecked in the opening practice for the Daytona 500 and is now one position shy of being Chase-worthy.

On a smaller scale, both of Busch's top-five showings have come after early-race adversity.

This week he qualified 10th and was running top-five when on Lap 37 of 200, he ran over oil from a damaged car and dinged the wall. He had to bring the Chevrolet into pit road twice for repairs and had to overcome a pit-road penalty, turning the day into a high-speed game of catch-up.

With methodical insistence -- and the benefit of a Lucky Dog pass to get back on the lead lap -- he climbed back among the top 10 with 20 laps to go and he was second on a restart with 10 to go. Initially, he was credited with a third-place finish, but a scoring review showed he was fifth.

"Today was very similar to last week in Bristol when we had to overcome a number of issues," Busch said. "We had a loose wheel and damage to our front-end before finishing fourth in Bristol.

"This week it was getting into someone else's oil before slapping the fence and then being penalized for speeding on pit road.

"Though we never quit, and do the best we can to fight back, it sure would be nice to have a smooth race, something we haven't had this year."

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-- Kurt Busch

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