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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings, No. 11: Kurt Busch

You may not think so at first, but of the full-time NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Kurt Busch has the earliest series debut out of them all, finishing 18th at Dover International Speedway in September 2000. 

Twenty-one years later, the 2004 champion isn’t backing off the gas just yet.

The 42-year-old driver from Las Vegas has checked off almost every accomplishment in the book, among them a championship and 32 wins, including victories in the Daytona 500, the All-Star-Race, the Busch Clash and the Coca-Cola 600.

Even though the road to NASCAR greatness hasn’t all been sunny and bright for a man once nicknamed The Outlaw, Busch seems to have put all past hardships behind him. With his popularity growing again, and with a strong Chip Ganassi Racing team beside him, he certainly aims to scale higher summits with the 2021 season closely approaching.

A Look Back

Despite winning at Bristol Motor Speedway and picking up a seventh-place points finish in 2018, Busch was released from his driving duties at Stewart-Haas Racing, for whom he piloted the No. 41 machine for five years.

Thankfully, he spent just a handful of days in free agency before longtime team owner Chip Ganassi announced Busch as driver of the team’s No. 1 Chevrolet. He picked up his lone win of the 2019 season at Kentucky Speedway, beating younger brother Kyle Busch in an amazing finish. He scored a total of six top fives and 18 top 10s, but a mediocre playoff performance relegated him to a 13th-place points finish.

2020 saw Busch make a considerable amount of improvement. He collected an emotional hometown win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in September, along with scoring seven top fives and 19 top 10s, ending his season 10th in points. By doing this, he became the third-highest finishing Chevrolet driver in the final standings, behind champion Chase Elliott and sixth-place points finisher Alex Bowman.

Promising Venues

Busch’s 32 wins have come at many different places. But with a new season comes new opportunities for him to possibly collect wins at tracks where he hasn’t won at before.

There are seven existing tracks on the 2021 schedule where he still has zero wins at in his career: Daytona International Speedway’s road course, Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Watkins Glen International, Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s ropad course and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.

And with the addition of Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway and Road America to the schedule, he will have three prime opportunities to become the first recent Cup winner at these new tracks along with the rest of the field.

2021 Scenarios

The 2021 season will mark Busch’s third year driving for CGR. After having Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth as teammates last year, he will instead have a new teammate in Ross Chastain, who will drive the team’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Chastain’s recent driving style has become quite complementary to that of Busch. So CGR may have themselves a bolder dynamic duo of drivers when the series arrives at Daytona in a few short weeks.

Also, with veteran drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer entering retirement, that frees up more names from the grid that Busch won’t have to face on the track. Sure, it won’t be an easy task, as the competition is continually filled with fresh faces each year who are ambitious on taking all the glory for themselves. But Busch’s veteran status should give him a solid edge and allow him to rise when weaker drivers begin to fall.

Even though his 2020 season was a step up from the year before, the thing he must work on perfecting the most is his consistency and building streaks. His longest streak of consecutive top-10 finishes last year was only five, coming between the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the first Martinsville Speedway race in June. If he can piece together longer streaks of top-10 and top-five runs, that should develop a greater likelihood for him to make a deeper run into the playoffs, and possibly into the Championship 4.

Outlook

The quest is still not over for Busch to win his second championship, 17 years after winning his first. Ganassi has consistently provided him fast cars. Busch may only have two wins with CGR, but there have been times when he was at the doorstep of victory, only to be turned away, such as the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400. If he wants to make it eight straight seasons with at least one win, he must have the determination to utilize all the resources around him to make another winning season possible.

Since Busch isn’t getting younger, it leaves fans to wonder just how much time Busch has left in NASCAR. But if you take a look at how well Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have done at their current ages, or how well past drivers such as Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt raced in their later years, Busch should have no worries about adding a few more years onto his career. Age is just a number, after all.