2004 SEASON 6,506 POINTS; 1ST PLACE
NO MATTER what you think of Kurt Busch--and, judging by the thunder of boos he receives before every race, it probably isn't much--you've got to give the kid credit: He's grown up in the last year.
Though he still occasionally drives as if he's on a mission to cause a wreck, Busch, overall, is no longer the hotheaded, overly aggressive racer who earned the full-throated scorn of NASCAR fans in 2003. "I was forced to evaluate a lot of things," says Busch. "I'd like to think I've taken some positive steps in the right direction."
Yet during the first 26 races of '04, Busch often made callow mistakes, such as trying to squeeze through a hole that wasn't there, and as he entered the Chase he had failed to notch a top five finish in seven consecutive races. Once the green flag dropped on the second season, however, Busch became a different driver. He was patient, he avoided accidents as if he knew when and where they were going to happen, he conserved his engine, and he didn't make any serious mistakes on the track.
By season's end Busch was as consistent as any driver in NASCAR, and he was rewarded with the Nextel Cup title. "I plan on being in the sport for a long time," says Busch. "And hopefully I can win multiple championships." After his performance in 2004, that suddenly seems not just possible but probable.
RUNS WELL AT: Bristol suits Busch's aggressive style, and he's won there three times in the last two seasons.
TROUBLE SPOTS: Chicago. Busch has struggled in the Windy City, finishing 35th and 39th the last two years.
PROJECTION: If Busch can stay out of trouble, the victories and the championships will keep coming, and the boo-birds will eventually fly away.
Busch had a knack for running in the front in '04--his average finish (8.9) was the best of any driver in the final 10 races.