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Busch elevating No. 78 team to new heights

July 09, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Busch elevating No. 78 team to new heights
Latest surge in standings shows progress at Furniture Row Racing

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems an accomplishment even more herculean than it was at the time. Kurt Busch didn’t just win NASCAR’s premier-series championship in 2004, he held off a driver who would soon stake his claim as the greatest of his era. That he edged Jimmie Johnson by eight points -- at the time, the closest finish in history -- feels even more impressive in retrospect, given the onslaught to come.

So yes, it was no small feat for a driver then 26 to prevail in a championship battle also involving Jeff Gordon and Johnson, the former with four titles behind him and the latter with five crowns ahead. No matter what Busch has been through in the years since then -- and as everyone knows, he’s been through a lot -- he still wears that 2004 championship patch on his firesuit, a reminder that he’s among the very few drivers to have stared down Johnson with a title at stake, and won.

"He’s a leader. Whether he wants to be or not, he is."

-- Furniture Row Racing GM Joe Garone on Kurt Busch

Despite the unknowns of that inaugural Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, despite a wheel that came off his race car in the middle of the event, Busch prevailed and reached a level the overwhelming majority of drivers will hope for but never attain. And yet, what he’s doing now seems almost as extraordinary -- even though it hasn’t netted even a single race victory to this point. Busch is elevating an entire program, almost single-handedly making relevant an organization that had been a competitive footnote before his arrival.

How much difference can one driver make? We’re seeing it now, live and in color, every time that No. 78 car takes to the track. A team that had three top-five finishes in its history before Busch is suddenly -- shockingly -- ninth in the Sprint Cup standings, and in serious playoff contention for the first time ever. This isn’t Roush, an established powerhouse that won another title the season before Busch claimed his. Furniture Row Racing is there largely because its driver has pushed and pulled and demanded the organization raise itself to a level commensurate with his talent.

“Kurt’s ability to push you to another level is doing just that -- it’s pushing the team from every aspect, from pit stops, to management, to me, to the guys working on the parts and pieces, the guys putting the cars together. All of it is being pushed,” team general manager Joe Garone said from the Furniture Row shop in Denver. “And what feels good is, I think everybody is responding.”

No question Busch has taken his share of hits over the years, whether in regard to run-ins with media members or other competitors, or his unwieldy split from a Penske Racing team that would win the Sprint Cup title a year later. Since then he’s been rebuilding his career, and the process has at times been amazing to behold. His third-place run last season at Sonoma, in a Phoenix Racing car that had no business being near the front on a road course that affords no place to hide weaknesses, was a small-scale version of what he’s doing right now with the No. 78 team, which has more resources but is still sniffing rarified air for the first time.

The transformation is at times stunning. Thanks in large part to its affiliation with Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row has always seemed capable, and Regan Smith snared the organization’s first -- and to date, only -- victory on a tire gamble at Darlington in 2011. Smith is no slouch as a driver, as he’s showing by leading JR Motorsports back to the top of the Nationwide Series, elevating that program in a fashion similar to what his successor is doing in the No. 78. But Busch is a rare breed. His ability to drive aggressively but cleanly, to charge hard yet maintain the trust of those around him, can at times be spectacular. And when he has a car equal to his skill, watch out.

Clearly he struggled with that at times last year, in Phoenix entries that didn’t always have as much as he asked them to give. Now, the finishes tell the tale. Busch came very, very close to sweeping both weekends at Charlotte in May. Since then he’s placed worse than 12th just once, that at Michigan when he was caught up in an early accident. The past four weeks he’s vaulted from 20th in the standings to ninth, and squarely into the Chase conversation. Under proven crew chief Todd Berrier, the cars have become more consistent. In Busch’s hands, they’re capable of unprecedented results.

Furniture Row has more top-fives this season than in its eight-year history before Busch. No question, there are a lot of people working very hard in the No. 78 shop in Colorado. But there’s also one person driving it all.

“He’s a leader. Whether he wants to be or not, he is,” Garone said of Busch.

How? “I would say he pushes people to be better just by being Kurt,” he added. “He’s tenacious on a lot of different levels. When it comes to the performance of the car during the race when he’s driving, he gives -- and you can see it -- he gives everything he’s got. And not that other drivers don’t, but it’s just the way it comes across to the team. So he’s a leader by example, and he had a knack to get guys to just want to follow him and keep giving it everything he’s got.”

The task is for the team to keep up. That disparity was evident in Charlotte, when it was a not-quite-fast-enough pit stop that kept Busch from claiming $1 million in the Sprint All-Star Race, and a dead battery that sent him to the rear of the field in a Coca-Cola 600 he was leading with 74 laps to go. It all gave the impression of an organization struggling to reach the level of its driver. The results of the weeks since would seem to indicate that the gap has closed -- to a degree.

“It’s closed, but I think you’re always going to try and keep up with him,” Garone said of Busch. “He’s really amazing. Right now we have some weaknesses. Our pit crew, for example, is a first-year group. They’re all good guys, very talented. … We’ve been seeing a steady progression. But are they at the level we need them to be to win the All-Star Race? We’re not. We need to get better there, and we are. But it takes time for those pieces to happen.”

It’s happening in large part through Busch’s force of will. Whether on weekly debrief calls or at the race track, Garone said his driver is never shy about voicing potential improvements or tracking what the car needs. His influence is not limited to behind the wheel. “He does a real good job of having a plan the next week, from his perspective, of maybe where we should head when we come back to the race track we just left, or maybe in general,” the team GM added. “It’s another real strong point we’ve enjoyed with him.”

No wonder then, Garone said he and owner Barney Visser have begun the process of trying to keep Busch in the No. 78 beyond this season. Busch has a one-year contract with the team, and his name is sure to surface in association with vacancies at other programs for 2014. But as far as the Furniture Row organization is concerned, there’s mutual interest in keeping Busch exactly where he is.

“We know Kurt has certainly expressed that he’d like to stay here, and we’d love to have him here and keep him,” Garone said. “Honestly, we’ve been trying to stay as focused as we can until we can get through Richmond. But what we do know is, we certainly want to be together. Once you know that, you’re like -- OK, we’ll get to it here in a little bit.”

Richmond, of course, is the final race of NASCAR’s regular season, where the Chase field is determined. The fact that the No. 78 team even has that night circled on the calendar shows how far they’ve come. And if Busch can get them there -- well, it may not earn him another patch on his firesuit, but it just might be a breakthrough every bit as notable as another one he recorded nearly a decade ago.

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