Underrate: v. to rate too low, undervalue – Webster’s Dictionary
It goes without saying that in order to race in one of NASCAR’s national touring series, you have to be able to drive a little. All of these drivers have skill, even if some of them have a little luck to go along with it. They have the respect (mostly, anyway) of their peers and (well, sometimes) the fans. Every year though, there are few drivers that seem to garner the lion’s share of media attention.
This year it’s been Jimmie Johnson (can he win an unprecedented fifth straight championship and in the process, depending on who you believe, ignite NASCAR Nation with an historic feat or bore them into a hypnotic stupor?), Denny Hamlin (thank goodness he can drive better than he plays basketball, and is he the one who can take down Johnson?), Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski (be careful not to trip over the open cans of whoop-ass), and of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who is, depending on whom you ask, the most overrated and the most underrated driver in the world… at the same time.)
One driver who has been, for the most part, outside the media fray this year is Kurt Busch. Busch is currently fifth in points heading to Michigan this weekend, coming off a career-best road-course finish after driving his way to a second at Watkins Glen.
Yet Busch seems to be largely under the radar this year.
While it’s true that Busch’s numbers aren’t similar to those of the ultra-consistent Johnson and he hasn’t hit the hot streak that Hamlin found earlier this year, it’s also true that over the last five races-since Johnson put a well-timed bump and run on him to win at Loudon, Busch has been better than Johnson or Hamlin. In that time span, Busch has three top-10 finishes to Hamlin’s two and Johnson’s lone 10th-place effort. His two wins on the season currently will tie him for third when the Chase begins, just 30 points off of Hamlin and Johnson, who currently have five wins apiece.
Busch has always been a talented driver. He’s also had a history of less-than-clean driving and the occasional temper tantrum, but while these have certainly impacted his popularity, they don’t account for his being overlooked as a title favorite; his younger brother Kyle’s behavior is generally worse and he has had his share of props for his driving.
And while Kyle Busch may have more raw talent than almost anyone in the garage, Kurt Busch is a better driver. He’s brash, all right, but he has learned to channel his impulsiveness on the racetrack, and he knows when finesse will beat speed. He has worked hard on his image, and although his interviews often make you wonder if he ate a thesaurus, you have to give him credit for trying. Not that he’s perfect, mind you. After minor contact with Johnson ended his day early at Pocono, Busch called Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates “pretty boys.” He later said that he had tried for a ride at Hendrick himself (most likely the No. 5 that went to Kasey Kahne for 2012), revealing a jealous streak that isn’t particularly flattering. But he has made a concerted effort to improve his image.
I’ll admit that I was among those who didn’t feel that Busch deserved his first title. Seventh in points in September isn’t really championship caliber in my book. But this year, he’s the real deal. And until recently, nobody has noticed.
Looking back at our staff’s season predictions, Busch was barely even thought of as a factor-while there was a bold championship nod, six writers didn’t even have Busch in the Chase. My fifth-place prediction was the only other top-five nod from our staff, despite the fact that Busch finished fourth in points in 2009.
To be fair, Busch’s season points finishes have been widely inconsistent. He’s missed the Chase twice since his championship season. However, this year, Busch is running better than he did at this point in 2004. He’s two points positions and more than 70 points closer to the lead without benefit of the reset yet.
And most importantly, Busch is racing like a champion. His average finish is 13.7. That’s a full spot higher than Johnson’s and more than half a position better than Hamlin. He has just one DNF to Johnson’s four. It will have to get better in the Chase, but he does have top 10 runs at five Chase tracks already this year. That’s as many as Johnson and one more than Hamlin. Busch’s career numbers are also impressive; his 22 Cup wins are good for fifth among active full-time drivers.
It’s entirely possible that Kurt Busch is among the most underrated drivers in Sprint Cup today. While many fans and media have failed to notice, Busch is very much a championship contender-perhaps even the favorite after his summer easily outstripped reigning champ Johnson and early favorite Hamlin. Busch has taken his equipment beyond expectations, too, after Penske Racing became the sole Dodge representative among the Cup elite. While many feared that lack of information would hurt the organization, Busch has made it his personal mission to prove the naysayers wrong-something he has tried (sometimes too hard) to do throughout his career.
2010 could easily be Busch’s year to put the critics to rest and win a title in a convincing manner. It could be the one that got away, if his emotions get the best of him. But don’t count on that, either. Even when he’s been unhappy, he hasn’t done anything outlandish or rash. He’s been Johnson’s biggest rival on track this year, and as NASCAR’s most underrated driver, could very well be Johnson’s biggest rival for the Cup.
Not that many people have noticed.
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