If I mentioned a Stewart-Haas Racing driver with two top-20 finishes, sitting 28th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, who would you guess it is?
If you guessed Danica Patrick, you’d be wrong. After her run Saturday that was more surprising than the time Darrell Waltrip correctly identified a car on aFOX broadcast, Patrick has three top 20s and sits 27th in the standings.
One spot behind her sits Kurt Busch. Subtract out Busch’s victory at Martinsville and the former champion has been horrendous. He lucked into a third-place finish by staying out for the green-white-checkered chaos that was Auto Club, but his next best finish is 21st at Daytona. His average finish of 25.5 through 11 races is his worst average since his rookie year in 2001 with Jack Roush Racing.
These haven’t exactly been bad-luck finishes, either. At Kansas, Busch battled for a top-5 spot early before gradually dropping through the field. On lap 180, he spun out off of turn four and mowed the infield grass. Twenty-three laps later, he went spinning down the backstretch. He finished 29th, four laps down. This came after he didn’t finish three of the previous four races due to crashes (one was Talladega, where even I crashed my Subaru).
Crash test dummy is probably not the role Busch envisioned for himself when one of the top teams in the garage, Stewart-Haas, offered him a ride late last season. A championship-winning driver was finally placed back with a championship caliber organization after two winless campaigns with underfunded teams.
He overdrove cars each week and crashed them with Phoenix Racing in 2012 and made more news on the track for nearly running over crew members, driving away from an accident scene with a paramedic’s bag on his roof and an official leaning in his car, and profanity-laced tirades. My favorite was “I hate my f***** job.”
But Busch turned it around in 2013 with Furniture Row Racing. He didn’t win, but consistently was a factor for wins, and he took a team that hadn’t ever come close to the Chase, and put them in the playoffs for the first time.
Busch was bound to reel off wins and top-10 finishes in better equipment at Stewart-Haas. It hasn’t worked out that way, though. His attitude has improved — he decided he must not hate his job that much — but his driving has been as erratic as 2012 as he’s struggled to get a grip on the car following the offseason rule changes. Meanwhile, teammate Kevin Harvick is competing for wins each week. Is Busch putting too much pressure on himself to perform now that he’s back with a top team, in the same way he did when he thought he had to carry Phoenix Racing?
The saving grace for Busch is his Martinsville win; it’s the only thing that is keeping the No. 41 team from sounding the alarm. Under the new Chase format, Busch could conceivably stay 28th in points and still make the playoffs with the win. That’s only if 16 drivers or less score wins. If more than 16 drivers win (it could happen) or if Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett reel off some 23rd-place finishes and Busch keeps wrecking, the 2004 champion is in trouble. That’s unlikely, though, meaning Busch can use the next 15 races or so as his testing ground, to try and get things pointed in the right direction — not the Kansas infield — by the time the Chase rolls around.
Busch doesn’t seem too concerned about it. He’ll spend most of his time in the next couple of weeks at Indianapolis as he prepares to race for Andretti Autosport in the Indianapolis 500 and become only the fourth driver to attempt the Indy-Charlotte double — 1,100 miles of racing on the same day. Out of the three drivers to attempt the double — John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart — only one (Stewart) has raced all 1,100 miles.
The way Busch’s season is going, I think we’d all be surprised if he became the second driver to finish both races on the lead lap. It’s not the Indy 500 I’m worried about — he might win that — it’s the NASCAR race later on where Busch finishing at all seems like a stretch.