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Busch hoping to use Sonoma race as Chase spark

June 20, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

Only 33 points shy of 10th-place Tony Stewart, a win would go a long way for the 20th-place driver

SAN FRANCISCO -- Kurt Busch has some theories for how the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs could undergo some intriguing changes in the coming years. For right now, he’d settle on securing a berth in the postseason just the way it is.

Busch’s chances for making the Chase will get a proper field test this Sunday in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT) at Sonoma Raceway, the first road course of the season and a place that’s been especially kind to the former Sprint Cup champ the last two years.

Busch floated out wide-ranging proposals for the Chase in what he called “soapbox” time during the track’s annual media luncheon Thursday at San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square. Among them, a bidding system for tracks to host the Sprint Cup season finale and shaking up the final 10 races to add some variety to the schedule’s home stretch.

While those decisions are out of his control, his Chase hopes to some degree are. Busch sits 20th in points, having dropped five spots after an early wreck last weekend at Michigan International Speedway stemmed his headway. To qualify for the playoffs, he’ll need to work his way into the top 10 in the standings or rank in the 11th-20th range in points likely with a win or two on his side.

With just 33 points separating 20th-place Busch from 10th-place Tony Stewart, a jump into the top 10 seems realistically doable. But Busch cautioned that looks may be deceiving.

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“It’s tough. There’s so many ways to look at it because there are so many cars that are eligible to get into the Chase by the separation of only being 30 points,” Busch said. “I mean, I’m 20th -- that means there’s 10 guys from 11th to 20th that are in the mix.

“Like Tony Stewart’s season, we were all starting to think, ‘Wow, those guys have had a rough year.’ They win at Dover, next thing you know he’s in the Chase right now and he’s solid and everything looks good. One week can change your season, and so this track, I hope it can help me do that, but we still have to be consistent after a win to be ahead of the guys who have those wins and where they are in points.”

Former championship crew chief Larry McReynolds, now an analyst on the TNT broadcast team that will air Sunday’s race, said several factors are keeping Busch from entirely controlling his own destiny.

“It’s a lot of racing,” McReynolds said of the 11-race stretch before the Chase field is locked in after the Sept. 7 event at Richmond International Raceway. “Thirty-something points is not a lot of points, but the drivers he has to leapfrog, that’s where it gets complex. ... Thirty-something points in 11 races, you go, ‘My gosh, that’s only three points a race,’ but it’s those guys you’ve got to leapfrog and that’s where it gets convoluted.”

One factor that’s provided a glimmer of hope for Busch has been improved performance from the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. In recent weeks, Busch has consistently been a force near the top of the speed charts in practice and qualifying. The next goal on the list for the Denver, Colo.-based team: Finding the same consistency from green to checkers on race day.

“It’s a great feeling to go to the race track and know you have a top-10 car,” Busch said. “There’s been times with the big teams I’ve been with where we’re scraping and clawing just to see if we can crack the top 15, so it’s a lot of hard work, but there’s also some satisfaction in helping this team. We’re helping each other being in position right now. The practices are going well; we’ve just got to close the deal right now.”

Based on his last two trips to the 1.99-mile Sonoma circuit, Busch holds more promise for bettering his place in the standings than most drivers this weekend. While with Penske Racing in 2011, he led 76 of 110 laps in securing a dominant breakthrough road-course win. Last year, his drive to a third-place finish may have been even more inspiring.

Busch challenged eventual race winner Clint Bowyer doggedly over the final laps with James Finch’s unsponsored, underfunded No. 51 Phoenix Racing entry, fading from contention only after clipping the anchored tires in the track’s closing hairpin. Busch fought back tears in an emotional news conference after one of the most determined driving performances of his career.

“It was amazing to feel the energy from the other teams to be that sentimental favorite that everyone was rooting for,” Busch said. “Even though it was (team owner Michael) Waltrip’s win with Bowyer, people seemed to have more focus on us finishing third with a little team. So it was emotional, and it was a near-perfect drive. I almost got it and almost did something pretty special.”

A rally into this season’s Chase would likely be just as special for Busch. Sunday’s race at what he called his “sentimental favorite track” could go a long way toward making that hope a reality.

“Over the years, the track has been real nice to me,” Busch said. “It’s definitely a track on the map that I’m looking to get to.”


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