Analysis: Kurt Busch proved early he'd be one of the greatest of all time

Analysis: Kurt Busch proved early he'd be one of the greatest of all time

Kurt Busch‘s rapid climb from stocking shelves at his local grocery store to becoming a NASCAR Cup Series-winning driver was a story most would assume came from a movie, but in a span of just four years, the Las Vegas native did just that. Memories of that career came flooding back as Busch announced his retirement from Cup Series racing on Saturday.

Busch‘s raw talent took him from winning the Southwest Tour championship as a 21-year-old in 1999 to beating out a handful of other candidates to drive the No. 99 Exide Truck for Jack Roush in 2000. It didn‘t take long to realize Busch was a legitimate title candidate with three top-four finishes over the season‘s first four races. Busch‘s second-place finish in the Truck Series points standings, behind teammate Greg Biffle, launched him into a full-time ride in the No. 97 Cup car starting with the 2001 season.

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His rookie campaign didn‘t go as planned, but Busch exploded onto the scene in 2002, winning the first four races of his career and finishing third in points. He won another four races in 2003, and the team looked forward to 2004 with eyes set on its first series championship.

The Chase for the Cup, a 10-race playoff system that NASCAR rolled out starting with the 2004 season, was set up well for Busch. Despite driving just two full-time seasons, he had already found success at the 10 tracks on the new playoff schedule.

Busch kicked off the 2004 campaign with a handful of solid finishes over the first seven races, including a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. This all put the driver first in the series standings for just the second time in his young career. What followed was an unfortunate stretch of growing pains. Between the races at Talladega Superspeedway in April and Chicagoland Speedway in July, Busch finished 31st or worse four times over 10 starts while only notching two top-10 finishes. This stretch unfortunately dropped Busch down to ninth in points.

Busch led 110 laps at Loudon the following week en route to his second win of the season as the team looked to push through the struggles. As the Chase for the Cup approached, he capped off the regular season with five top 10s over the final six races, yet still managed to enter the playoffs as an underdog due to the strong crop of drivers vying for the title.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon entered as the points leader, while his teammate and 2003 runner-up Jimmie Johnson was five points back in second. The two previous drivers to win the championship, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, were not far behind, as each position was separated by five points after the regular season reset. Busch entered the postseason seventh in the standings, 30 points back of Gordon, right in front of his teammate Mark Martin.

Busch dominated the playoff opener at New Hampshire, leading 155 laps en route to the win. Despite seven of the 10 playoff drivers all grabbing finishes of 13th or better, Busch left the track tied for the points lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The playoff race at Talladega is where Busch started to show he was a legitimate title contender. Busch finished fifth but was the second-best playoff driver that day. He left the track second in points, 13 back of the race-winner Earnhardt Jr., but a penalty to Earnhardt Jr. flipped the grid and instead put Busch up 12 points with seven races remaining on the schedule.

Busch later led a race-high 120 laps at Martinsville Speedway, but Johnson won the race and now had two consecutive victories. At that point of the season, Busch led Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson in the standings. Two weeks later, Johnson grabbed his fourth win of the playoffs.

If it shows how strong of a season Busch was having, despite how well Johnson was driving, Busch was still faster. He arrived at Homestead for the season finale with the points lead but with Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Martin all mathematically eligible for the title.

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Busch would need everything to go right for him to leave that weekend with the championship trophy, and the weekend kicked off with him putting the No. 97 Ford on the pole as many of his fellow contenders struggled.

Once the green flag waved, Busch led the first four laps before settling back in the field. It all seemed to come apart on Lap 93 as Busch lost a right-front wheel, somehow keeping his car straight as he attempted to bring it down pit road for service. Thanks to incredible work from his Roush Racing crew, Busch returned to the track on the lead lap, albeit in 28th position.

Trouble didn‘t just strike the No. 97 team, though. Shortly afterward, Earnhardt Jr. found trouble after contacting the No. 06 of Travis Kvapil. With just under 40 laps to go, Martin‘s chance disappeared after needing to pit for a flat tire under caution.

It all came down to a restart with 10 laps to go, with Gordon, Johnson and Busch all restarting inside the top 10. Busch held a narrow eight-point advantage over Gordon, with Johnson sitting just two points behind his teammate Gordon. Everything seemingly pointed toward Busch wrapping up his first title. If they could just find the checkered flag.

As if the race couldn‘t find any more dramatic moments, race leader Ryan Newman blew a tire, bringing out the caution with just three laps remaining, invoking a green-white-checkered finish. At this current moment, Busch held a 16-point advantage over Gordon in the standings.

The green flag waved, and despite Johnson and Gordon moving up to second and third, respectively, Busch held on to capture the title. He‘s one of just 35 drivers to win a Cup Series championship.

Busch‘s talent on the track was a giant piece to that puzzle. He turned mid-season growing pains into an incredible playoff stretch, one where he beat some of the greatest drivers of all time while they were at their best. That season saw 15 of the top 18 in points named as one of the 75 Greatest Drivers in 2023, with a total of 24 drivers from that list making at least one start that season. Out of all those drivers, it was Busch who came out on top, hoisting the elusive Cup Series title.

It didn‘t matter the car number, owner, sponsor or manufacturer, Busch always managed to find Victory Lane throughout his career. He hangs up his helmet tied for 25th all-time in Cup Series victories, winning at least one race in 19 different seasons. The driver has visited Victory Lane at 18 different tracks, from the Daytona 500, to the twists and turns at Sonoma Raceway, to the paperclip at Martinsville, no matter the track, he was always a contender.

Truly, one of the greatest of all time.