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NASCAR Mailbox: Can Kurt Busch Win the Sprint Cup Series Championship?

It’s been nearly 12 years since Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The November afternoon was remarkable for Busch, then 25 years old. After a tire flew off his car heading into pit road, he managed to come back to finish fifth in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, clinching the title by a mere eight points over Jimmie Johnson, who finished second on the day.

Winning the championship was icing on the cake for Busch, who was racing for Jack Roush at the time. He came up to the Cup Series straight from the Truck Series, following a four-win rookie season in 2000 en route to finishing runner-up to teammate Greg Biffle.

It appeared to be the start of something special between Busch and Roush. However, their relationship ended near the conclusion of the 2005 season, when Busch was suspended by his team for the final two races of the season due to a run-in with police in Phoenix.

After spending 2006 through 2011 with Team Penske, Busch mutually agreed to leave the team after a series of outbursts on and off the racetrack. The incident forced him to spend the 2013 season with the underfunded Phoenix Racing before heading over to Furniture Row Racing for the final six races, making him reassess his life.

Evidently, Busch’s time with the smaller teams worked.

Busch signed with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, showcasing that his determination to get back to a top-tier team indeed paid off. He won in his sixth race with the team.

While Busch had an alleged incident with former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll at Dover in Oct. 2014, he was initially indefinitely suspended by NASCAR, though he never received charges. However, Driscoll’s attempt to receive a court order of protection was indeed approved. Busch returned to the track with Stewart-Haas Racing after missing the first three races of the season. He made the Chase after being granted a waiver from NASCAR, finishing the year eighth in the standings.

Fast forward to 2016, Busch is one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit. He had seven straight top 10s, spanning the final three events of 2015 to the fourth race of 2016 at Atlanta.

But until Pocono Raceway on Monday, Busch went winless, failing to capitalize on 11 top 10s in 13 races.

As Busch stepped out of his No. 41 car in Victory Lane at Pocono, it marked something different for Busch. Instead of it being another win to satisfy his Chase eligibility, his triumph was one that secured his shot at being a championship caliber driver for the first time in over a decade.

(Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)
It’s hard to believe that this is Busch’s first win of the season when you look at his overall statistics. (Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)

Q: With Kurt Busch locking himself into the Chase with a win at Pocono, what are the chances he can win the championship? – Julia M., Boston.

A: Busch’s odds are certainly in his favor. Following Pocono, he leads the Cup Series with 12 top 10s, along with completing every lap throughout the first 14 races of the season.

Appearing stronger than we have seen in the past, Busch is on track to have a career-best season. His career-high of 21 top 10s (three times) could be shattered by the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond — the 26th event of the year — at this pace.

There is something different about the No. 41 team this year, and it isn’t just adding Monster Energy as a co-primary sponsor.

Busch is walking with pep in his step around the Sprint Cup garage area. On Monday, just moments before the command to start engines for the Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400, he walked down pit road with a giant smile on his face. He seemed at peace with where he was and what he was doing. It’s different than what he had a few years ago, when he walked around with a straight face, showing little to no emotion until he exploded.

The emergence of Busch’s patience, on and off the racetrack, is the difference maker in 2016. Maintaining that patience is going to be key to his title hopes, forcing Busch to be more methodical in his approach to not only racing, but life in general.

Busch is maintaining pace with teammate Kevin Harvick, and has actually been outrunning the No. 4 team since Texas in April. Busch has an average finish of 5.63, compared to Harvick’s 8.12, over the past eight races.

Another new aspect to Busch’s added confidence level is the backing from Monster Energy. Having a secure sponsor, in addition to support from team co-owner Gene Haas, he can go out there and not worry about his job. Now that he has extra funding coming in, he doesn’t have to worry about being on the hot seat, given that the sport is in the midst of a dramatic shift, where the situation of being funded by a team owner is quite rare.

Bringing on Monster Energy at Martinsville last October marked the first time Busch brought a new sponsor to the Sprint Cup level since Wonder Bread partnered with him at Talladega in Oct. 2013.

Additionally, Busch has the support of his SHR teammates. They have showed confidence in him multiple times this year, and rightfully so given his incredible pace.

Come September when the Chase starts, one would be crazy not to think Busch will be a championship contender if he continues to be as hot as he is right now.

Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.

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The championship how it is designed now, signifies nothing, nothing but a lot of $$$$ and manipulation as to who the powers that be seem to want for their feel good narrative and rewarding the good donors who support their coffers.

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