Race Weekend Central

Fan’s View: Champion Again? Will 2011 Be Kurt Busch’s Return to Greatness?

There’s been an unfamiliar face holding various flags and trophies up in victory lane as of late. Well, not as much unfamiliar as unexpected. Kurt Busch finally managed to do on Sunday what his No. 22 has struggled to accomplish this year, and yet came up short time after time. He won. Not an, “Excuse me, sir, may I come through?” kind of win… but a, “Just who do you think you are even trying to keep up with the man?” sort of day.

It was rather spectacular. I saw shades of 2004, his championship year, just without all the youthful angst that he seems to have shared with his brother oh so well.

And after three weeks of snaring the pole position, followed up with this unlikely triumph on a road course, of all places, I wondered if Kurt Busch just might be able to make a run at a second Cup this year. We like to ponder these things after such a stellar performance. There would be sentimental aspects attached to such a championship year, first and foremost the pleasure of seeing Roger Penske stand up once again as an owner.

Secondly, Kurt’s first Cup was earned amidst a whole lot of drama — the kind his brother Kyle Busch seems to excel at creating now. The elder Busch still sounds cranky on the radio on a consistent basis, but his public persona has improved 10-fold in the past six years. I’d much rather crown the current incarnation than see a repeat of the end of his reigning year.

While no one likes to see adversity, sometimes that’s the necessary evil for long-term success. It pleases me as an observer of the sport and humanity to watch talented youth fly as shooting stars, earn a few scars then climb back up in a more measured, careful pace — still achieving what very few on the planet could ever aspire to. It gives depth and value to their earlier accomplishments.

However, taking into consideration his maturity and recent triumphs, is it wise to start considering a new addition to the Cup trophy room in the Busch household? I’d say it’s a bit premature. He’s got three powerhouse teams ahead of him in the standings right now and we haven’t even entered into the Chase, when certain repeat winners seem to turn on the switch come September.

One point ahead of Busch’s fourth-place position sits none other than Jimmie Johnson, Mr. You-Know-Who. Except for the fact that Busch hasn’t won the last five Cups, their 2011 seasons have had disturbing similarities: not quite greatness, spattered with moments of complete domination. It hasn’t been so long since J.J. lived in victory lane, day-in-day-out, that we’ve forgotten his potency when the real money is waved at the No. 48 team. Still, that Lowe’s Chevy hasn’t been flying the colors quite as convincingly this year as in previous ones. Could Kurt take out Jimmie right now? Good possibility.

Next up, Happy Harvick himself. It’s still taking a bit of adjustment looking at the nine-point separation and believing it’s a larger gap than what my memory tells me. However, Harvick’s three wins and the continued consistent killer performance from the RCR stables leaves me in no doubt that I could see the No. 29 doing the happy dance at Homestead.

Not much has slowed the Shell/Pennzoil team down over the past 12 months, drama drowned out by persistent performances near the front of the pack. Even Sunday, with all the dents and dings of a road course Harvick and Co. looked pretty stout on one of their weaker tracks. Now, maybe that might be a champ with more than a chip on his shoulder, but we’d have a heck of a time getting to that final checkered flag.

That’s two teams ahead of the No. 22 well able to give us all a show in the final 10 weeks of the 2011 season. At this point, I’d call Harvick and Johnson even odds for who might win out — Knaus is likely to sprinkle some fairy dust over the No. 48 crew and somehow bring it all home again. Harvick? It’s a matter of refusing to give it up. He’ll claw his way all the way to the end. Busch’s team would have to remain on target with better and better finishes as the year progresses. Doable, but a real fight is in store for them.

However, there is one more team. The one team sitting at the top of the points… Carl Edwards and his No. 99 Roush Ford. Should things remain much as they are, and I haven’t seen anybody stumbling over in that garage, I don’t think Busch should be getting too excited about snaring that major piece of hardware at the end of the year.

Everybody’s favorite backflip boy is executing a season that the forefathers of our sport built the points system on originally — consistently awesome. A win, nine top fives and 10 top 10s earn a wow! Even when the going gets tough, the crew keeps going; they made sure he was still running in the end at Pocono, even after his engine decided to shed parts early on. Focused, hungry and achieving the near impossible, Cousin Carl has not disappointed his fans and has silenced the doubters for the year.

What would it take for Busch to knock Edwards off his perch?

Somehow, this newly rejuvenated Penske team would have to pull off the remainder of the season — 20 long races — without an error. I’m not saying without a mulligan, but without another stumble. No loose wheels, dropped air guns, sour engines or ill-timed fuel stops.

We know the No. 48 excels at near-perfection when the leaves turn. The No. 29 won’t give up… ‘cause they’re just ornery.

That No. 22 just doesn’t have the reputation of a team that’s willing to give it all up in search of the Big One. I don’t know… I guess I’m not sold on the idea.

So one runaway win at one of two road courses doesn’t a champion make. Instead, there must be a long string of appearances without flaw to garner one of the most prestigious trophies in all of sports. Kurt Busch may have once been a champion, and learned many a lesson in the years since, but he still has a long ways to go before he will stand atop that podium one more time. We must see many more Save Mart 350s from the No. 22 team in order to achieve this goal.

After all, isn’t consistency what NASCAR is built on?

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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