Once a long shot, the one-car team is now a Chase contender
Hugs, cheers, back slaps and tears greeted Busch as his crew welcomed the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy as it pulled onto pit road following Busch’s runner-up finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400 -- an effort good enough to put the single-car team into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time ever.
“How ‘bout them apples? Unbelievable,’’ Busch said after the race. “To make the Chase with these guys is an unbelievable feeling. It's been an 18‑month work in progress, and I've been through a lot, and I've learned a lot, and I feel like I'm better ready for the Chase and life in general as a 35-year-old.’’
The second-place effort for Busch -- his eighth top-five on the 2013 -- earned him enough points to finish the regular season in eighth overall, re-seeded to the 10th and final guaranteed position in the 12-driver, 10-race Chase, which starts next Sunday in Chicago.
Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. won the Wild Card slots based on their win totals. Short of a victory this year, a good showing Saturday night was the only way Busch would qualify and he did exactly what he needed to do -- leading 73 laps to boot.
It was redemption not only for the single-car, Denver-based team -- the only Sprint Cup organization not based in the Charlotte area -- but also for the temperamental Busch, the 2004 Cup champion who has been with three teams since 2011 and undergone an image makeover that even he calls “well-documented.”
Just last week, Busch announced he will drive a fourth car for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
After winning his Cup title in 2004 with Roush Fenway Racing, Busch drove most of last season for the lower-budget single car Phoenix Racing team before joining Furniture Row this year.
Team owner Barney Visser and Busch were convinced the team would defy the odds and all but promised a Chase berth in the preseason, certain that Busch’s experience combined with the team’s technical affiliation with Richard Childress Racing and a whole lot of motivation all around would elevate the team into title contention.
“I have to go back and say at the beginning of the year as the team has grown, you start setting goals -- after Kurt coming on board, being able to bring [crew chief] Todd Berrier, some of the guys we've had come onboard at the shop, Barney making the comments, ‘I expect to make the Chase,'" FRR General Manager Joe Garone said.
“When you're out in Colorado, you've gone through what we've gone through, you realize just how difficult of an accomplishment that is, to have a leader that's got that kind of vision, we all just fell in right behind him.’’
“Dreams come true today.’’
Even before he turned the first lap of competition this year, Busch spoke with confidence about the team’s potential and his desire to play the underdog role until it no longer accurately fit.
And almost from the beginning, he began exceeding expectations. Back-to-back top-five finishes in March at Bristol, Tenn., and Fontana, Calif., were a sign of good things to come.
The team had only three top-five finishes and eight top-10s in 193 starts before Busch joined the team. Busch has eight top-fives and 13 top-10s this season alone.
“I don’t know if it’s a dream come true as much as I’m kind of in awe of Kurt and Joe and the whole team and what these guys have been able to do,’’ team owner Visser said. “They put in a lot of hard work and a lot of hours and it’s incredible what they were able to do.’’
Of little surprise to those that know Busch, he hardly feels like it’s mission accomplished; rather one giant step in the right direction. Even as he accepted the congratulations and accolades Saturday night, Busch was quick to remind everyone this is only the first phase of the bigger goal.
“It was a dream (to make the Chase] and now it’s a reality,’’ Busch said. “It’s an amazing feeling after such a long journey for my part and it’s great to know I did my part. I’m very proud to have driven the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy into the Chase this year.’’
“We've got some muscle in us. We haven't won a race yet this year, but we're in the Chase, and we've got a good 10 weeks ahead of us where we can do some good things.
“We have a test session we've saved. I think we can make a run through this Chase. We just have to do the same thing we did tonight: Keep plugging away, let everybody else worry about what has to happen and we'll keep doing what we're doing out in Colorado because nobody can look over our shoulder.’’