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Kurt Busch sneaks into Chase Zone

 
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

For Kurt Busch, Daytona was significantly better the second time around.

Yes, Busch was one of the fortunate few — the very few — that survived the first 400 miles of Saturday night’s race plus one lap of overtime to finish sixth.

And while it wasn’t a win, it was a moral victory for the team that has endured an array of pit road mishaps, mechanical issues and self-admitted driver errors over the first 18 races. But the latter has far been the least of the team’s problems since digging out of the 28th-place deficit when Busch was collected in nine-car accident during his prior trip to the beach.

Now, at the midway point of the season, Busch finds himself in Chase Zone for the first time all year.

“That’s awesome to have a good run like that and stay out of trouble and post a nice top-10,” Busch said. “These Furniture Row guys have been working hard. We’ve made little mistakes here, there, and everywhere. When we start putting it together, it’s now starting to bear the fruit and we’ve moved our way into the top 10 in points. So that’s pretty cool.

“We have a long way to go, and yet we still are getting better. I’m just real proud of these guys and the effort that we’ve put forth and just a big thanks to (team owner) Barney Visser . . . It’s great. We’re there, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do.”

Furniture Row is becoming the little team that could. Busch is the only driver from a single-car operation to be sitting in the top 10. Certainly, the symbiotic relationship with Richard Childress Racing would not qualify FRR as a single-car team in the traditional sense, nor does Busch consider it so. Not only does he benefit from an exchange of data and information with RCR, but Busch has pushed Kevin Harvick as well.

After Harvick won his second race of the season at Charlotte, Childress acknowledged how much Busch and FRR “bring to the table.” Harvick, who finished third Saturday night and is fourth in the point standings, acknowledged that Busch’s input has been invaluable.

“Listening to Kurt Busch in the meetings is something that adds to our team,” Harvick said in May. “The way that Kurt drives, hard, he has good feedback. To me that's been the thing that really has helped the 78 car become relevant for RCR and myself, is you can go over and talk to him and look at his data, and it's real and it's fast. It has really helped what we've been doing.”

Todd Berrier, who was Harvick’s crew chief for nine years during his tenure at RCR prior to joining FRR, agrees with his former driver that “seeing how each other does makes both of them better.” While Berrier believes that talent-wise the drivers are close but he gives the edge to Busch.

“Kurt’s one of the best ones (in NASCAR) for sure which I knew going in from experience,” Berrier said. “A driver of Kurt’s caliber, they’re going to bring out all the weaknesses of a team. It’s up to us to step up as a company to compete at this level.”

Considering that Busch signed a one-year deal with the organization last year, it’s up to the team to prove its worth to the former Sprint Cup champion.

Berrier says “speed has not been an issue” for the team. Neither has the driver for that matter. But it’s the “little things” that add up along the way.

Busch has quickly acclimated to the Denver-based team, but he’s also had to deal with a newly formed pit crew. While there have been an assortment of technical glitches — a loose battery cable, a broken fuel line or an electronic control unit gone bad — the over-the-wall effort has been, well, the pits. Busch has had several opportunities to win this year when his momentum was squashed entering the pits.

But Saturday night, the No. 78 team was ranked sixth among teams that spent the least amount of time on pit road. Could it be a harbinger of future performance? Perhaps. Sure, the driver didn’t post five top-10 finishes in the last seven starts on his own but to contend on an even playing field with points leader Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth or Harvick, he will have to have a consistent crew that’s at least able to maintain track position, if not gain a spot or two on occasion.

With 39 points separating 10th-place Tony Stewart to 20th-place Paul Menard, the Chase carousel continues revolving with eight races to determine the final 12 candidates. What must FRR do to guarantee a spot after Richmond?

“Just do what we’ve been doing for the last couple of months, be solid,” Berrier said. “Every week that we go to the track with a fast racecar, we continue to build confidence in Kurt and he’s forced to take fewer risks.

“We need to concentrate on finishing 10th and backing our way into a win rather than concentrating on winning and finishing 10th.

Certainly, Busch is capable of posting top 10s — 16 of his 24 career Cup wins have been earned on six of the next eight race tracks. And if the team can pull its weight, perhaps the driver won’t feel the need to kick the tires anywhere else.

UNDER THE SUN

While some traditionalists are lobbying for the summer Daytona race to return to its July 4 date, it makes more sense to turn the Sprint Cup race into a two-day weekend show.

Clint Bowyer would be all in for that. His disgust on Friday in the post-qualifying presser was evident.

“I can’t wait for (Saturday),” Bowyer said. “My ADD is running wild. I think I ran seven laps (in practice) and one today. All these fans down here having a blast down at the beach, and I can’t join 'em because of that one lap that I had to do today."

Although he qualified third, the driver wasn’t pleased that he gave up an entire day to run one lap during time trials. Who could blame him? Not the teams that shared a similar sentiment.

While all 43 cars that competed in the Coke Zero 400 participated in first practice, only 17 cars stayed around for Happy Hour. Simply put, the teams didn’t want to risk wrecking cars in case someone slipped up on the track.

So tell me, why does NASCAR insist on making this a three-day show?

With only two series competing for track time, it would be easier to combine practice and qualifying for Cup on Friday. The teams could enjoy an extended practice, qualify and then participate in Happy Hour. Given the extended time that Cup cars were on the track it would likely attract more fans as a lead in for the Nationwide Series race.

SOCIALIZING

After Denny Hamlin triggered a six-car wreck that collected his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and Chase hopeful Jeff Gordon, the driver tweeted a simple apology:

 

NUMBERS

30.189 Average seconds spent by Jimmie Johnson on pit road Saturday night.

5 Positions lost in the point standings by both Joey Logano (15th) and Paul Menard (20th) at Daytona.

17 points separating the top five Nationwide Series drivers.

SAY WHAT?

Ryan Newman’s Daytona Adventure had pluses and minuses. The good news? His 10th-place finish was his eighth top 10 of the year and elevated him to 16th in the point standings. The bad news? He couldn’t avoid the last-lap wreck.

“The best part of that finish was that we were able to get a top-10, which means that fans can get a free Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse on Monday just by saying my name,” Newman said.

“Honestly, other than that, I don’t have much to say. I’m glad we got a top-10, but I hate that we destroyed another racecar on the final lap. That just seems to be the norm for us when it comes to restrictor-plate racing.”

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