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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch Age: 28
1 win, 7 top 5's, 12 top 10's, 15 top 15's
Avg Start: 10.4 Avg Finish: 19.4
Points Standing: 16th Driver Rating: 86.3
#2 Miller Lite Dodge Crew Chief: Roy McCauley

Everything was new for Kurt Busch in 2006. Moving from Roush to Penske meant new cars,crew, sponsors and also brought new struggles. Aside from a win at Bristol, the season had its fill of disappointments. After making the first two installments of the Chase, Busch did not come close in 2006.

The way Busch qualified in 2006 was from a Folger's commercial: Someone has secretly switched Ryan Newman's qualifying setups with Busch's. Won 6 poles. His career total was three prior to 2006. His 10.4 average starting position was second to Jeff Gordon. The problem wasn't the starts, but rather the finishes. His average finish was a disappointing 19.4.

No matter what Busch tries, he is a lightening rod for controversy and criticism. At Bristol, his winning pass was made by bumping leader and former teammate Matt Kenseth out of the way. It was a legal move, but it wasn't popular with some drivers or fans. Two races later he was involved in a crash with the dominant car of Greg Biffle (another former teammate, ironically). The drivers settled their differences, but their girlfriends did engage in a heated exchange on pit row.

They were two of several forgettable episodes in a forgettable year for the elder Busch. A common theme during his season went like this: Start the race at the front, then suffer problems on pit road costing track position and often leading to mistakes on the track. This happened at Atlanta, the second Bristol race, and both Texas races. Other races he started up front, led laps and then faded late from the wrong adjustments.

Despite the challenges, Busch did make progress during the summer. Starting with a 2nd at Pocono, Busch scored six top tens (including 4 top fives) in seven races. He still had an outside chance of cracking the top ten heading to Watkins Glen. After sitting on the pole, Busch led 38 laps and appeared to have the dominant car. Late in the race he entered the pits just as the caution came out. He mistimed the stop by mere seconds, resulting in a penalty that sent him to the rear of the field. He finished 19th, but it ended any real possiblity to make the Chase. The rest of the season was very uneven. He would score a top five finish one week and then slog his way to a 25th place finish the following week.

Busch's results were the worst since his rookie season. The past four years Busch averaged 3.5 wins, 10 top fives and 18.25 top tens. He led 15 races but only 272 laps. A season of transition was expected, but not to such extents. Looking from the outside, it appeared Busch was inheriting Rusty Wallace's car that made the 2005 Chase. In truth, Busch had very few holdover crew members. Roy McCauley replaced Larry Carter as crew chief.

To put Busch in a bigger hole, the Penske organization made some poor decisions that hurt the performance of both cars in 2006. During the offseason the #77 program was ended, reducing Penske to two full time teams. It also reduced the amount of information collected and limited the different options for testing. The decision didn't appear based on sponsorship either; Penske has an abundance of sponsors.

The immediate performance was most influenced however by the decision to run the Dodge Intrepid during the first part of the season. After Dodge ended this option after seven races, Penske had to play catch up on the unreliable Charger. The self-inflicted wounds cost Busch and Ryan Newman any realistic chance to make the Chase.

No matter how hard Busch tries, he remains unpopular with fans. Lost in the silly things he does is the fact that he is one of the elite drivers on the Cup circuit. Given a good car he is capable of winning at any type of track. Penske's short track program is always strong and Busch might be the top driver at Bristol. He has five career wins at the Tennessee short track. He also is very strong at Pocono. He finished 2nd at both races there in 2006 and won the July race in 2005. California, Talladega, Loudon and Phoenix are also places where Busch is on the shortlist of top drivers.

In his second year with Penske and McCauley, Busch should expect improved consistency, especially in the pits. If that happens he is a favorite to make the Chase, especially with two additional spots available. Busch always runs the risk of losing his temper at the wrong time. If Penske's equipment is still lacking, Busch won't have the luxury to turn a poor car into a wrecked car too often. The speedway program remains the largest unknown, but Busch is good enough at every other track to compensate. Two to three wins and a Chase berth is manageable.

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