AT THE conclusion of the Samsung 500 on Sunday, Kurt Busch climbed out of his car at Texas Motor Speedway and took a slow walk around the vehicle, running his fingers gently over the hood and gazing admiringly at the blue number 2 Miller Lite Dodge. And why shouldn't Busch be taken with his race car this year? After being overshadowed by his younger brother, Kyle, for the better part of the last three seasons, Kurt and his ride have been the biggest surprise of the 2009 Sprint Cup season.
With seven races down, Kurt, who finished 18th in the standings last year, is third in points, has one victory (as many as he had in all of '08) and has led 238 laps (74 more than last year's total). On Sunday he consistently ran in the top 10 and finished eighth behind winner Jeff Gordon (box, right). It was the kind of quietly productive performance—no fender-benders, no mistakes in the pits, no mechanical problems—that Busch, 30, was known for when he won the Cup championship in 2004. "We're getting stronger each week," Busch said after the race. "There's a long way to go to the Chase, but I like where this team is heading." For Busch, who is notoriously prickly off the track, that represents a rave review.
Busch's resurrection can be traced to Sept. 28, 2008, at Kansas Speedway. For the race that day his car was outfitted with a new engine, the R6, a design that some 60 engineers at Dodge had spent more than two years developing. Though Busch finished 30th, he and crew chief Pat Tryson remained committed to the engine for two reasons: 1) It produced more horsepower than the engine the other Dodge teams were using, and 2) it stayed cooler than the old engine, enabling Tryson to put more tape on the front grill and thereby create more downforce (the key to driving through the corners at the highest possible speed). It wasn't a coincidence that over the final six races of '08 Busch had three top six finishes.
Over the winter Tryson and his crew spent as much time in the wind tunnel as any team in the sport, trying to make the car as aerodynamically efficient as possible. Busch was also aided this off-season by NASCAR's ban on testing at tracks that stage Cup races. Because teams don't have as much data on their setups when they go to the tracks to race this year, the crew chief must rely more heavily on feedback from his driver during practice sessions. Only a handful of drivers know the ins and outs of a race car as thoroughly as a crew chief—both Busch brothers and Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are especially knowledgeable—and they've been the ones this year who have consistently gained more speed as the races progressed.
"Kurt and Pat are going to make the Chase," says Chad Knaus, the crew chief for three-time defending Cup champion Johnson. "Kurt can flat out drive his ass off—that's never changed. But their team has improved, and he'll contend for the championship. He's one of the drivers we'll really have to watch out for."
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Lars Anderson's pre- and postrace Cup analysis.