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Kurt Busch 2013 year in review

December 16, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Busch led single-car team of Furniture Row Racing into the Chase

This is the fourth in a series of 2013 Sprint Cup Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com

Kurt Busch wanted a 15th-place finish in the final Sprint Cup Series points. Instead, the former champion got what he called the second-biggest accomplishment of his career at NASCAR's highest level.

Busch's full season stint with Furniture Row Racing was a boon to both the driver and the Denver-based organization, returning the 2004 champ to the ranks of the elite while elevating the No. 78 team into playoff position for the first time. Busch didn't win a race in 2013, but he came awfully close several times, and in the process helped Furniture Row become the first single-car team ever to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

"We achieved our goal," said Busch, who placed 10th in the final standings. "My goal was to go from 25th to 15th in points. Once we got to the summer months, the Chase was right there. We knocked the door down, we got in. It was an amazing season."

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SEASON IN REVIEW

In more ways than one. For Busch it was the final step in an odyssey that began with his split from Penske Racing following the 2011 campaign, and saw him race with sponsor-strapped Phoenix Racing for most of 2012. At the tail end of that season he moved to the No. 78 team, which had won one race with Regan Smith at Darlington in 2011, but had never sniffed the Chase -- Smith was in 23rd, the highest position ever for a Furniture Row driver, before he was replaced.

But as he showed in flashes with Phoenix -- including a miracle third-place run at Sonoma -- Busch is clearly a driver capable of lifting a team to new heights. And he did just that with Furniture Row, winning the pole at Darlington, starting on the front row nine times, and standing as high as fifth in points after the opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland.

"I think it was our Darlington pole that showed we've got the raw speed and our numbers are going to stack up in qualifying, and they did after that," he said. "But then it was the Month of May in Charlotte. The All-Star Race we were leading, just had a bad pit stop at the end and came home fifth. Coke 600 we were leading, had a battery cable issue, came home third. When you're upset about top-five finishes, that’s when you know you’ve made it."

Indeed, those two weeks at Charlotte -- a pair of races Busch could have easily swept if not for a slow pit stop and then a battery failure -- were when everyone realized the No. 78 team was for real. But Busch could only do so much, evident in the pit-stop issues that plagued Furniture Row for much of the year, leading to an over-the-wall shuffle early in the Chase and likely preventing the No. 78 from reaching Victory Lane. And the car's balance went awry after a second-place finish in the fall race at Kansas, leading to a final points position that wasn't indicative of how the team ran most of the year.

"It's easy to Monday morning quarterback," Busch said. "… Sometimes those things happen."

If there was one moment that encapsulated Busch's short stint with Furniture Row Racing, it was a dramatic restart at Atlanta where he vaulted from 11th to second in a single lap, jetting in and around cars to net a fourth-place finish he had to have to keep the No. 78 team in the Chase hunt. The next week, he made it in with no problem.

In the end, everyone won -- Furniture Row improved enough to acquire the services of another playoff-caliber driver in Martin Truex Jr. for 2014, and Busch is set to race a fourth car for Stewart-Haas Racing, having been handpicked by co-owner Gene Haas.

"His mentality matches mine. He doesn't care about the rough edges I have," said Busch, who will have Haas' machine-equipment company as primary sponsor on his No. 41 car. "… I still have a lot to learn, a lot to prove, a lot to do. I have a championship from years ago, and it's time to put it to good use with Stewart-Haas Racing."

But not before taking one wistful and thankful look back at his single season with Furniture Row Racing, which for both for driver and team will likely be viewed in retrospect as a bridge to better things. No, Busch didn't win a race in 2013. But thanks in large part to Barney Visser's race team from Colorado, he did something much bigger -- once again ascended to the level where everyone knows he should be.

"It's been a long journey, and it's great to finally grab that cherry on top and eat it," he said. "But I know that even back on even ground, so to speak, there's still so much more ahead of me in my career. I look at 14 years as being a nice, solid number. There should be another 10 on the other side of it."

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