There was little doubt that Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens could be successful together. The duo won 19 of their 52 Xfinity Series races, so chemistry clearly wasn't a problem.
Still, Joe Gibbs Racing couldn't guarantee that Stevens would immediately excel in his promotion to the Sprint Cup Series. And, when Busch was injured a day before the Daytona 500, Stevens was given a setback that could have derailed the No. 18 team for the season.
Instead, Stevens plugged away with three different drivers and had the team ready for Busch's return in May. Now they are coming off a Brickyard 400 victory on Sunday — their third consecutive Cup win and fourth in the last five races going into Pocono this weekend.
"I appreciate Adam being able to hold everybody together for 11 weeks," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "That's hard to do. You think you're probably out of the Chase? You look at them and look at their eyes, there was no backing up. We talked about, 'Hey, if we get Kyle back, we've got a chance.' But . everybody here would have probably said it's probably not a good one, including me. It's just worked out unbelievably."
Busch is now within reach of the top 30 in the Sprint Cup standings. Should he crack that mark, he can earn a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Busch admits they've exceeded their expectations.
"We just wanted to come back and get back into a rhythm of things and finish top-20, finish top-15, get to some top-10s," Busch said. "But right when I did come back, I felt ready to go. I didn't want to come back and not be ready to contend for race wins.
"Gelling with Adam Stevens and just getting used to him as a crew chief, obviously I've worked with him on the Xfinity side, but never at the Sprint Cup level. This is an entirely different game up here, but it's all worked, and we've certainly exceeded our expectations."
Stevens said a shared outlook about racing that has allowed them to take off since Busch returned from a broken right leg and broken left foot.
"Kyle and I, we look at race cars and racing the same way," Stevens said. "We both know that it's not about making any one item on the car or any one strategy or any one weekend perfect, it's about making all the 10 or 12 things that make a car go fast as good as you can and moving on to the next one."
INDYCAR CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: For the first time since the season-opening race, IndyCar could have a change atop the points standings at the end of the weekend.
Juan Pablo Montoya has led the standings the entire season and takes a 42-point lead into Mid-Ohio this weekend. There are 54 points available, so it's possible that Montoya could lose his lead with a bad race.
What's surprising is that he could lose it to Graham Rahal.
Of the 13 drivers still mathematically eligible, Rahal is perhaps the biggest surprise. He had a miserable 2014 season with just one podium finish and he was 19th in the final standings.
But Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing overhauled the organization during the offseason, and Rahal has been one of the most consistent drivers this season. He also scored his first victory since 2008 with his win in Fontana, California, in June.
"I just haven't really thought about the fact that we are second in the championship," Rahal said. "I have just been focused on keeping the team pointed in the right direction and keeping my mindset and everything sharp and ready for whatever may come.
"I think we have some great opportunities with the three races ahead of us, and I hope we can catch up to Montoya a little bit."
This weekend's race is a home race for Rahal, an Ohio native. His best finish was fifth last season — one of just two top-five finishes all year for Rahal.
"I am thrilled to be going home — it's obviously always a big race and weekend for me," he said. "Now with everything that has gone on with the championship I think that friends and fans are definitely excited and that's been a lot of fun for me to see people support us in the championship."