DOVER, Del. – Kurt Busch looked around and saw NASCAR's biggest stars crowding his car. Dale Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett all zooming past Busch and giving the rookie driver a reality check — his racing heroes from TV were now his toughest competitors on the track.
"I was so blown away by the speed and intensity of it," Busch said.
Busch steeled his nerves inside the ol' No. 97 John Deere Ford and finished ahead of Jarrett and one spot behind Earnhardt. Busch was a solid 18th in his first career NASCAR Cup start on Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover International Speedway. He flashed some of that early Outlaw spirit, grinding and fighting — and using his natural talent — to prove car owner Jack Roush may have been right in fast-tracking the 22-year-old Busch to NASCAR's elite series.
Fast forward 14 years, 499 career starts, and one championship later, and Busch is back at Dover, still grinding, still fighting, only this time to prove he belongs in the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
When the green flag drops Sunday, Busch will become the 35th NASCAR driver with 500 career Cup starts.
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only fulltime drivers with more starts than Busch. Hall of Famer Richard Petty tops the list with 1,185.
Busch has collected quite a resume, including 25 wins and that 2004 title. Oh, he's also burned through more teams than he ever expected, in large part because of, at times, his prickly personality.
"It's been a great ride," Busch said. "There's still so much more to do."
Busch was all smiles this weekend reflecting on the big wins and milestone achievements, rattling them off in great detail as if they had all just happened.
Like the time he bumped past Jimmy Spencer at Bristol for his first career win in 2001. Or winning at Atlanta in 2002 when he truly felt like he belonged as a Cup driver. His All-Star race and Coca-Cola 600 victories in 2010. His 10-week run in the 2004 Chase that earned him his only Cup championship. And, of course, his bid this season at racing history, trying to finish the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
It all started at Dover.
"I knew I wasn't ready," Busch said. "Jack Roush told me, 'Let's go make mistakes at the Cup level.' "
He started the final seven races in 2000 and started all 36 in 2001. He won his first career Cup race at Bristol in 2002, the start of a 14-win stretch from 2002-2005 driving for Roush, easily the most successful stint of his career.
From there he bounced to Penske Racing, and he made stops at Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing before latching on with Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Busch was winless in 2012 and 2013, but his win this season at Martinsville locked him into a Chase spot.
But maybe not for long.
Four drivers are eliminated after every third race, and a win guarantees a driver an automatic berth into the next round. The first cutoff race is Sunday and the bottom four from the 16-driver field are dumped: Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Busch and Aric Almirola are at risk of getting cut.
While a win and a Chase spot may suggest otherwise, Busch has been lackluster in his first season at SHR. He has just eight top 10s and was 36th last weekend at New Hampshire.
Busch praised former crew chiefs Jimmy Fennig and Pat Tryson for steering his career though the good times. But Busch hasn't yet clicked with No. 41 crew chief Daniel Knost. Knost doesn't have a traditional racing background, and served at SHR as a race engineer until his promotion this season.
"We're on the same page, but there are way too many times where I'm being the veteran pointing out things to the crew chief," Busch said. "I realized that after about the fifth or sixth week. This is going to be a new role for me to try and help a crew chief settle in with all the years of experience I have. You've got to be able to understand your situation and make the best of it."
Busch was noncommittal when asked if he wanted Knost back on the 41 next season.
Stewart-Haas Racing vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said Knost has "done a good job with the amount of experience he's had."
Zipadelli also said Busch needs improvement if the team is going to think about championship contention should they survive Dover.
"You can't burn the house down and expect everybody to smile at you the next day," Zipadelli said. "It's a touchy situation. But that's kind of his personality, and that's part of what we love about him, the passion that he has and the talent that comes with that passion. But you have to learn to control it. That's his strength, but at times, that can be his weakness, too."
Busch's passion for racing helped him cross boundaries this season when he attempted The Double, all 1,100 miles of Indy and Charlotte. Busch earned top rookie honors driving for Andretti Autosport at Indy with a sensational sixth-place finish.
After some rest, food and fluids on a flight to North Carolina, Busch fell 129 laps shy of his goal because of a blown engine in the No. 41.
Busch said he's had three discussions with his agent and others close to him about making a second attempt next season. He said it was 50-50 that he would try again and there was no timetable for a decision.
"It's now a bigger challenge to do all 1,100 miles," Busch said.
With a snazzy paint scheme on the 41 this weekend, the 36-year-old Busch had every reason to celebrate his impressive career.
He just wants to leave Dover with another successful chapter.
"It's the 500th start, I'm emotional," Busch said. "But win, lose or draw, we've still got a lot of good things going on the 41."