DOVER, Del. — Blog by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America photo — The number 500 has been popping up a lot lately in Kurt Busch’s racing career.
Busch made his debut in the Indianapolis 500 earlier this season for Andretti Autosport, finishing sixth and earning “Rookie of the Year” honors for the race known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” or simply “The 500”.
Indy was the first 500-mile auto-racing event, beginning back in 1911, with Darlington’s Southern 500 following in 1950 and the legendary Daytona 500 was added in 1959. Both of the latter events are two of NASCAR’s classics — Busch has a best finish of third in the Darlington event while he has been the bridesmaid in the “Great American Race” on three different occasions.
The self-proclaimed “Outlaw” is one of only a handful of legends, among them Cale Yarborough and A.J. Foyt, to have competed in all three marquee 500-mile events. This weekend, however, Busch will add another “500” to his illustrious career and join a different group of legends as he makes his 500th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at the track where it all began back in 2000 — Dover International Speedway.
Busch has a long history at the Monster Mile going all the way back to that first career Cup start, a day he started 10th and finished a respectable 18th for what is now Roush Fenway Racing.
499 races, 25 Sprint Cup Series victories and a Sprint Cup Series championship (in 2004) later, Busch returns to the concrete high banks for Cup start number 500 — a milestone that only 34 other drivers in the 65-year history of NASCAR have been able to achieve.
The time in between? It’s been muddy.
Busch’s tenure at Roush was highlighted by the inaugural Chase title in 2004 but ended in a bang when he was benched two races before the end of the 2005 season after a police misunderstanding led to his release from Roush and his subsequent signing with Roger Penske for 2006.
His time with Penske was even more tumultuous, because while Busch won 10 races and qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in four of his six seasons with the Captain’s organization, he had a famous meltdown in communication with brother Kyle following the 2007 All-Star race after Kurt pinched Kyle up into the wall racing for the lead and had four separate incidents in the 2011 season which culminated in Homestead when Busch verbally attacked ESPN pit reporter Dr. Jerry Punch in the garage area and led to his release from Team Penske.
That was the beginning of what many in the sport called the “fall from grace” for the former champion, who spent 2012 with underfunded Phoenix Racing and nearly won at Sonoma but was suspended for a race after going on another verbal attack against a reporter while he was already on probation. Continued high and low swings characterized Busch’s go of things in the Sprint Cup Series, but if 2012 was the fall, 2013 was the beginning of the return.
Busch moved from underfunded Phoenix Racing with six races remaining in 2012 to “diamond-in-the-rough” Furniture Row Racing, the single-car team out of Denver, Colo. that Busch carried on his shoulders all the way into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. While he didn’t win a race last season, team owners took notice not just of Kurt’s renewed focus on the race track, but his improved attitude off of it.
Ultimately, the 2013 season was the building block that has led Kurt Busch to his silver milestone this season and a seat back with NASCAR’s premier teams at Stewart Haas Racing. Now, 28 races, a win at Martinsville, a return trip to the Chase and zero self-started altercations into 2014 — Kurt Busch is back.
It’s been a long and winding silver road for the 2004 champion, but he completes the circle this weekend as he returns to Dover for start No. 500, a mark that if you had asked me in 2012 — I would have said Busch would never reach.
And yet through resilience, determination and some breaks from the right people along the way, Kurt Busch will become the 35th driver to reach the silver milestone in NASCAR’s top series on Sunday afternoon — fittingly at the place where it all began for him 14 years ago.
Beyond the numbers though, Busch knows as well that this weekend’s AAA 400 carries an even greater significance — he is one of 14 drivers – nine of whom are separated by just 18 points – fighting for a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s revamped 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Currently, Busch sits on the outside looking in — 15th in the Chase Grid — but only eight points separate him from advancing to the Contender Round and continuing a quest for a second Sprint Cup title.
What better way for Busch to put an exclamation mark on career start No. 500 than by winning at the same track where he started his Sprint Cup career?
At the top of this blog, I talked about the lists of legends that Kurt Busch is or will be a part of. The list of drivers who have won their 500th start? That club is a list of two: Richard Petty (1970) and Matt Kenseth (2013).
Kurt Busch would like nothing more than to ink his name as part of that elite list with his second career win at the Monster Mile. He knows it won’t be easy, but the “Outlaw” is always up for a challenge.
“It’s called the Monster Mile for a reason — the track can chew up cars and spit them out quick,” Busch says of the concrete oval. “The toughest part about racing Dover is when the track rubbers in and you’re out there for 350 laps, and that last 50 you haven’t simulated in practice, whatsoever, and that is when the track gets rubbered in. … It’s hard to predict what setup you need exactly for that and I’ve only found it one time. I’ve only got one win there, and that was September 2011. I’m ready for another shot at one.”
If he can convert that shot into a win? It would be the completion to a bizarre circle of events that is the NASCAR career of Kurt Busch. Call it a roller-coaster, call it crazy, call it whatever you want — but I’ve got one word for it, no matter how you look at it:
Congratulations on 500 starts Kurt. If nothing else, we know you’re going to put on one heck of a show on Sunday.