The Inside Line: Kurt Busch turning into a Chase contender

Kurt Busch is in a position where he hasn't been in quite some time -- the top-10 in points.

After finishing sixth in Saturday's 400-mile race at Daytona International Speedway, which marked the halfway point of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season, Busch moved up five spots to ninth in the point standings. Eight races remain before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, is in his first full season as driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team owned by Barney Visser and located in Denver, Colo. Furniture Row is one of a few NASCAR national touring series teams that doesn't have its shop in North Carolina.

Furniture Row has yet to make an appearance in the playoffs for NASCAR's premier series. Regan Smith drove for the team from 2009-12. Smith, who gave Furniture Row its first Sprint Cup victory in May 2011 at Darlington, is now a full-time competitor and current points leader in the Nationwide Series, driving for JR Motorsports.

The last time Busch occupied a top-10 position in points was after the penultimate race of the 2011 season, which was held at Phoenix. He was driving the No. 22 car for Penske Racing at the time. The season-finale in Homestead, Fla. was his last race in the No. 22. Busch's inappropriate hand gesture and use of foul language while waiting to be interviewed by an ESPN reporter at Homestead led to his dismissal from Roger Penske's team.

Busch sat no better than 23rd in points during the 2012 season, driving for Phoenix Racing in 29 races and then Furniture Row for the last six events of the year. He was suspended for the June race at Pocono for violating his probation when he made threatening comments to a reporter from The Sporting News one week earlier in a Nationwide Series event at Dover. Busch had been on probation for an incident that occurred with Ryan Newman's team at Darlington.

It's been 61 races since Busch last won in Sprint Cup, but that streak could be coming to an end soon. Busch has significantly improved within the past two months, finishing in the top-10 in five of the previous seven races. His best finish this season is third, which came in May at Charlotte. He had a setback last month at Michigan, where he finished 35th and dropped from 15th to 20th in points.

Busch has been very impressive in qualifying this year. He has started on the front row in four races. Busch won the pole at Darlington.

"These Furniture Row guys have been working hard," Busch said. "We've made little mistakes here, there, and everywhere. When we start putting it together, it's now starting to bear the fruit, and we've moved our way into the top-10 in points. So that's pretty cool."

Jimmie Johnson put on a dominating performance in Saturday's race. Johnson became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 and the 400-mile event at Daytona in the same since Bobby Allison last did it 31 years ago.

Busch avoided being caught up in two separate accidents that occurred during the final lap, as he scored his third consecutive top-10 finish.

"That's awesome to have a good run like that and stay out of trouble and post a nice top-10 finish," he said. "We didn't quite have the speed and momentum to break through at the end and challenge Jimmie. But it was a solid finish with a lot of high-fives with team members after the race."

A win will certainly help Busch's chances of qualifying for the Chase. If he were to end the regular season (Sept. 7 at Richmond) outside the top-10 in points, one victory might be good enough for him to earn a wild card.

Right now, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne hold the wild card spots. Truex and Kahne are the only drivers ranked 11th-20th in points that have one victory each this season.

"We have a long way to go, and yet we still are getting better," Busch said. "I'm just real proud of these guys and the effort that we've put forth, and just a big thanks to Barney Visser and Furniture Row and Chevy and everybody that's on board. It's great. We're there, but we've still got a bit of work to do."

The series now heads to New Hampshire, where Busch has three victories. He won both races at New Hampshire during his championship season in '04. His most recent victory there came in June 2008.