CUP: Late-Season Slip Hurt Kurt Busch

A look at the final eight races of the season – all Chase races, unfortunately – tells the tale of Kurt Busch's year.

He opened the Chase fifth in points, only 40 behind the leader, Denny Hamlin, and was considered among the drivers with a legitimate shot at unseating the seemingly unseatable Jimmie Johnson.

Instead, the final weeks of the season represented a steadily spinning downward spiral for Busch. Few observers would have guessed that, over the year’s final 10 races, Busch would have only one top five – and that a fourth at Dover in the Chase’s second race.

Busch entered the Chase with eight top fives, after all, and those runs included impressive victories at Atlanta and Charlotte. He had led in 14 of the 26 pre-Chase races, and there was every indication that the season’s closing weeks would be productive.

But, after finishing fourth at Dover, Busch’s worksheet showed a 13th at Kansas, 21st at California, 30th at Charlotte, 16th at Martinsville, 30th at Talladega and 24th at Texas.

He fell from fifth in points to 11th, and an 18th-place run in the season finale at Homestead, where he had won the Sprint Cup title in 2004, put him in 11th in the final standings, a spot too low to make the Sprint Cup awards banquet stage in Las Vegas.

Decidedly, it was not the way Busch would have chosen to end his run in the Penske Racing No. 2 “Blue Deuce,” the car he moved to after his tenure with team owner Jack Roush ended on a sour note. Busch will swap rides with teammate Brad Keselowski next season, moving into the No. 22 Dodge, which will carry primary sponsorship from Shell/Pennzoil.

“We had a strong start to the season with wins at Atlanta and the sweep [the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600] at Charlotte,” Busch said Tuesday. “Then we get into the second half of the year, and we thought we needed everything the same. That wasn’t the case.

“We’ve got quite a few things happening now as far as structural design changes to the chassis and some personnel changes. We want to make sure we start off next year where we left off when we were running so well.”

Momentum, Busch said, doesn’t appear unless the stove is frequently refueled.

“We’ve got to continue to make changes and not become stagnant,” he said. “I think maybe that’s what hurt us a little this year.”

Busch and his team picked up some additional support Tuesday as Penske announced that the Automobile Club of Southern California has extended and expanded its associate sponsorship of the No. 22 car. Additionally, the Auto Club will be the team’s primary sponsor in races in Fontana, CA; Kansas and Texas.

Also, the Auto Club will sponsor Penske’s Dallara/Honda driven by Helio Castroneves in the IndyCar Series next season.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.