Kurt Busch is suddenly the man to watch.
The former NASCAR Cup Series champion has not only clawed his way into playoff contention, but now sits above the cutline. Busch is three points to the good after the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, scoring 62 points between both races. Doing so has given him greater control of his destiny.
Over the last three races, Busch has proven this writer wrong. Coming off the All-Star Race break on June 13 and looking ahead to the final 10 races of the regular season, I wrote that Busch was all but in must-win mode. He was 18th on the playoff grid and over 60 points behind the cutline. It seemed he and his Chip Ganassi Racing team didn’t have momentum or performance on their side, considering how much of a fight this season has been with his Chevrolet.
Busch’s results, at that point, had been hot or cold. Of his two top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, the most recent was in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Additionally, he was not scoring many points during the race. An engine issue in the Coke 600 at Charlotte resulted in only one point. Two points were scored at Darlington. In eight of those 15 races, Busch earned 20 points or less.
Yes, it seemed like a safe bet to say that Busch and his team had a tall task ahead of them in trying to point their way into the postseason. For months Busch had been bouncing around 17th to 19th in points and anywhere from 30 points behind the cutline (after Dover) to 63 (after Sonoma).
It started with a 41-point haul and sixth-place at Sonoma Raceway, where Busch showed both his road course skill and worth by muscling his car into contention. It was precisely the type of performance I said Busch needed to start putting together. But again, it didn’t seem likely he’d keep that pace up.
I spoke too soon.
An eighth-place result at Nashville Superspeedway came with 40 points. In one race, Busch went from 63 points behind to only 26. A sixth-place finish in the Saturday race at Pocono and pocketing 45 points saw Busch leapfrog Chris Buescher above the cutline. Busch was likely headed toward another good points day in the Sunday race, but running out of fuel coming to the finish only netted him 17 points with his 20th-place finish. Fortunately, he only lost one point to Buescher.
To reset, here is how the playoff grid looks with seven races to go. Eleven drivers are clinched through wins.
12) Denny Hamlin +334
13) Kevin Harvick +158
14) Austin Dillon +91
15) Tyler Reddick +48
16) Kurt Busch +3
17) Chris Buescher -3
18) Daniel Suarez -48
19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -54
20) Bubba Wallace -54
Credit where it is due, Busch and crew chief Matt McCall have been doing everything right the last few weeks. From earning stage points to their overall finish, Busch is back in the mix and no longer looks like a longshot to make the postseason. Granted, the car still might not be to Busch’s liking. For instance, after Saturday’s race, he said they needed to find some more “pizazz,” but this team is finding ways to succeed.
I can admit, I was wrong. There had hardly been any movement around the bubble, and it seemed easy to say there wouldn’t be any big surprises or changes to the playoff picture through the summer.
I should have known better than to underestimate a driver with the last name Busch.