CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On the night Kurt Busch became the first driver from a single-car team to qualify for the Chase to the Sprint Cup, there was only one disappointment -- that he hadn't yet delivered on the promise he'd made to his girlfriend's 8-year-old son, which was to take him to Victory Lane. So he engineered a compromise, pulling young Houston up onto the stage where all the playoff-bound drivers basked in fluttering confetti, and allowing him to experience the next best thing.
"Good enough for me," the youngster told him. As it has been for Busch, who may be still pursuing his first race win in almost two years, but is savoring what he calls the smaller victories enjoyed on the way to potentially a much bigger goal.
"I just texted a friend of mine that's helped me in some of the spiritual things, and religion is where I met this guy. Met him at MRO. And he's been happy to kind of carry me along through some of this," Busch said Tuesday during a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Motor Racing Outreach is a faith-based support organization that travels along with the series.
'I said, 'There have been small victories all along the way. I just never realized that many things have happened and fallen into place.' There just hasn't been that big moment of champagne and big confetti and Victory Lane where you get your trophy and it's for your team. It's been a couple of years, but there have been so many chances to say, 'This was a winning moment,' and then embrace it and feel it. It's just not literally in Victory Lane yet. But we're in the Chase and we're running strong. Ultimately, you're not going to trade inconsistency for a couple of race wins."
Understandably so, given that he's gotten this far without one. A solid run of top-10 finishes helped Busch carry Furniture Row Racing into the Chase two weeks ago for the first time, and he backed that up with a fourth-place run Sunday in the playoff opener. The No. 78 team has won just once in its history, with Regan Smith at Darlington in 2011. Busch's last victory at NASCAR's top level was at Dover in early October of that same season -- almost two years ago with a Penske Racing team he would split with soon afterward.
The months since then have been a personal and professional journey, one that saw Busch start his comeback with the underfunded Phoenix Racing outfit, move to a Furniture Row squad that had more potential, and lay the groundwork for a return to the sport's elite at Stewart-Haas Racing next season. The idea of winning with the No. 78 before he leaves is a "side note" to the larger goal of contending for the championship, Busch said -- although history might indicate that in the Chase era, it takes one to do the other.
Busch has come close. He had a dominant car in the Coca-Cola 600 in May before his battery died, and led a race-best 102 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway before being involved in an accident. The Sprint Cup Series returns to the Granite State this weekend for the second round of the Chase. "I've got to think," Busch told fans during a question-and-answer session, "we can get over the hump this weekend."
In Tuesday's team meeting he said, the topic was how to improve short-run speed that hurt him last time out at Loudon. And although a return to Charlotte looms in three weeks, Busch said his car's setup will have to be different than it was in May. He once swept both May races there with Penske, returned with the same setup in October, and finished 30th. There's also focus on less promising venues -- Busch said his team's one remaining test will be used at Martinsville, which statistically is one of his worst tracks.
Through it all, he feels a victory is close.
"It's that last five percent," Busch said. "I don't know what we're missing, I don't know why we haven't driven into Victory Lane. If we had it, we would just push the button and do it. We're close. You don't just finish in the top five like we have these last few weeks without having strength in the team. We're just missing that last five percent. Just something about it. I cant define it, but we're close."
Slower pit stops, occasionally an Achilles' heel for smaller teams, have sometimes hampered that effort. Which may explain why Busch was penalized by NASCAR for speeding on pit road in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, which put him a lap down. He rallied to finish fourth, and although he picked up four positions in the standings, he lost eight points to Chase leader and race winner Matt Kenseth.
Busch said he lights on his tachometer -- which are calibrated by race teams -- were green, and added that in a perfect world he'd like to see NASCAR implement a push-button rev limiter system for pit road similar to those employed in many other racing series. For the time being, though, he'll cut it close trying to make up for whatever time he might lose during the stop.
"I'm so busy trying to push it that close to the envelope, because my pit crew is good at 14 flats," Busch said, referring to seconds. "They're not good at 12 flats. I'm trying to get all I can on pit road for them."
Particularly since this Chase marks the end of his run with a No. 78 team he's lifted to new heights. The 2004 champion of NASCAR's top division, Busch was handpicked by SHR co-owner Gene Haas to join an organization that will also feature Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, and Danica Patrick next year. What's he looking forward to most in 2014? "Having a team owner who's also a racer," he said in a Q-and-A, "? and seeing how Tony gets to debrief himself."
Busch doesn't yet have a crew chief or a car number set for next year, but he may have provided an indication of the latter Tuesday when he chose from a Hall of Fame's pin board a pin bearing the old No. 97 of Chad Little. Busch won his 2004 title in the No. 97, which he used during his stint at Roush Fenway Racing. "You see where my vote is," he told the crowd.
Busch is also hoping that Kenseth's first campaign with Joe Gibbs Racing -- a career year in which he leads the Chase and has accumulated six victories to date -- stands as a model for what he might be capable in his debut season with SHR.
"I'm hoping that my scenario next year is lighting in a bottle," Busch said. "We have zero people on the floor right now, zero cars, and yet, there's a wealth of knowledge in the garage that can come out of the gate, running strong, and Gene Haas wants to go to Daytona as a winning car. We have the chance to strike it rich just like Matt did. But we have to put the right things in the right place."
For now, though, the focus remains on the No. 78, and continuing to debunk the naysayers by making a serious run on the big prize at the end of the season. The day after qualifying for the Chase, Busch said he woke up feeling awful, with fatigue and flu-like symptoms that laid him low for 36 hours, and reminded him of how he felt after he won the title in 2004. The level of intensity it had taken to get there, he said, had exacted that kind of toll.
In the midst of it, he picked up the phone and tried to give his team members a morale boost. There were other victories, the kind small and not so small, still to pursue.
"That made me call guys like (crew chief) Todd Berrier and a lot of the crew guys in Colorado to go, 'I know we achieved something special, but we don't need to stop now. Let's keep going,'" Busch said. "Our battle to get into the Chase, it was a battle you'd put forward in the Chase. We had a good strong 10 weeks before, why not give another 10? And then we can all just die sometime around Thanksgiving."
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