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Turner’s Take: Hamlin Who? Kurt Busch Steals the Limelight Instead

Everyone was wrong about Denny Hamlin.

Contrary to popular preseason chatter, he’s not the guy with the best shot at ending Jimmie Johnson’s reign atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Instead, the first five races of 2010 have proven differently, with Hamlin failing to even post a top-10 finish to date.

In his place, there’s now another man with the goods to deny Johnson a once unthinkable fifth straight Cup title. He’s a couple years older than Hamlin, has been in the Cup series longer; and oh, yeah, he’s a past champion, too.

So let me go on the record as saying that if anyone not named Johnson wins the championship this season, it’ll be Kurt Busch.

Why? While Johnson has won three of the first five races and appears well on his way to another outstanding campaign, Busch has been only slightly less formidable.

His fast start has included a win, a pole, three finishes of sixth or better and leading all but one race. On Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Busch led 278 of 500 laps and had the dominant car before falling behind on a late pit stop and finishing third. Johnson, meanwhile, celebrated his first win at BMS after following in Busch’s tire tracks for most of the afternoon.

Due to poor finishes at Daytona and Las Vegas, Busch ranks just sixth in the standings heading into this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway, where he’s been just mediocre in recent outings. But Busch doesn’t need to smoke the field at Martinsville to make a serious title bid. He just needs to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup and put together 10 strong races at the end of the season.

With new crew chief Steve Addington calling the shots, Busch appears to be even better this year than 2009, when he won twice and finished fourth in points with crew chief Pat Tryson. And that’s why Johnson should be concerned about the 2004 Cup champion, who was the highest-finishing non-Hendrick Motorsports driver last year.

Days like Sunday, when Busch leads over the half the laps but loses in the end, are going to be few and far between. Like Johnson, Busch and his team are simply too good to regularly squander opportunities to win. And based on the No. 2 car’s early performance, more of those chances should be on the horizon in the coming weeks.

It’s also not surprising that the Busch/Addington combination appears to be working. Busch brought 20 wins with former crew chiefs into the pairing, while Addington brought 12 Cup victories – all over the last two years with Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Unlike Hamlin, who has completely failed to impress after being billed as a title contender on the heels of a career-high four wins in 2009, Busch has simply picked up where he left off last season. And while fellow preseason title favorite, 51-year-old Mark Martin, must live with the burden of never winning a championship (despite five runner-up points finishes), Busch doesn’t face the same type of outside pressure.

Entering 2010, he’s just five-and-a-half years removed from a title himself; and, at age 31, is probably in the prime of his career. The recent revelation that team owner Roger Penske has picked up the option on Busch’s contract for 2011 is also good news. While the veteran is technically not off the free-agent market yet, all indications point towards him returning to Penske next season. This should minimize potential distractions or offers from other teams who covet his services.

So if Busch and his No. 2 bunch live up to their potential and have a little luck on their side, they can bring Johnson’s stranglehold on the championship to a halt.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they will.

But based on how the season has started, it’s more than Hamlin and most everyone else can say.

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