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Through the Field: A Comeback Story

by Elliot Hicks

Of the eight drivers who remain in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, none have a more interesting and perhaps inspiring story of success and personal growth than Kurt Busch.

You know Kurt today as the older brother of Kyle Busch and the guy who all but stole a spot in the Round of 8 by finally winning at his home track of Las Vegas. But that win in Vegas, if it does end up being his last, would be a perfect storybook ending to a career of ups and downs unlike many we’ve seen in the history of racing.

With his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month, Kurt Busch punched his ticket to the “Round of 8.”

Kurt Busch started his Cup Series career as a young driver with Roush Racing, where his always fiery personality first came to light on a national scale. Busch was undoubtedly successful in his first few years in the series, but his feuds with Jimmy Spencer (albeit a hothead driver in his own right) are certainly more memorable now than any of those victories. He even won the series championship in 2004, but as time went on, his relationship with team owner Jack Roush deteriorated enough that he was released from his contract before the end of the 2005 season. That decision was helped by a NASCAR decision to park Busch for the final two races of that season due to an incident with the police, but it’s never the way you want to go out.

No matter, though; Busch’s talent earned him a ride with Penske Racing, another top-level team, replacing former champion Rusty Wallace in the famed “Blue Deuce” No. 2 Miller Lite car.

Things went relatively well for Busch in that ride as he won eight races in five years and mostly stayed out of the spotlight for things outside of racing. But after being moved to Penske’s No. 22 ride, things became more frustrating for Busch. Although he won two races, he believed the team didn’t have what it takes to win a title and became increasingly frustrated. Busch became infamous for his expletive-laden tirades on the radio when things didn’t go his way, and he was all but fired by Penske after the 2011 season after his frustrations boiled over, with arguments with media members and track workers reported near season’s end.

With no top rides available, Busch had to humble himself, and in a hurry, if he was to have a ride in the sport. He began seeking help for his problems in 2012. And while his season with low-tier team Phoenix Racing still featured screaming on the radio and more issues with the media, it was the start of his turnaround.

It was Busch’s season with Furniture Row Racing, which you may remember as winners of the 2017 championship with Martin Truex Jr., where he showed that he still has the talent to compete for wins and make the team around him better with his veteran experience.

He didn’t win in 2013, but he earned a deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for the following season, where he returned to his former success with a new outlook on racing and life as a whole.

We don’t see the same Kurt Busch in the sport today that we saw back then. By all accounts, he seems to have grown past his issues and has become an entirely different person and driver. He’s grateful for where he is, where he’s been and has earned the success he’s had.

Take it from Kurt Busch – if and when you can, tackle your issues head-on, and work every day to become a better person, not only for yourself but for those around you.

It’s obvious by now that one of Busch’s fellow “Round of 8” competitors, Chase Elliott, is the series’ new king of the road course. Last week, at the Charlotte Roval, the No. 9 team got its fourth consecutive victory at a road course dating back to last summer.

Fortunately for the rest of the field, there are no more road courses and no more extremely chaotic tracks left in the playoffs. This is the round where the cream of the crop rises to the top, and almost always, the four best drivers end up fighting for a title once it’s all said and done.

This week, the series is at Kansas, a typical mile-and-a-half oval where the best drivers typically are the ones who perform the best, especially late in the season.

This Week’s Pick

Kevin Harvick:  I think that Kevin Harvick will become the first driver to punch his ticket into the championship race. I think Harvick’s Round of 12 was relatively disappointing as he was never truly a threat to win in any of the three races.

That could be a bad sign as that kind of complacency is never good in the playoffs, where you not only have to be good, but you have to have momentum to succeed. But I’ve seen too much success from Harvick and the No. 4 team in 2020 to bet against them. The fact that he is the only Stewart-Haas car remaining in the playoffs should mean that all their best minds are focused on this team the rest of the way.

Sleeper Picks

Alex Bowman & Martin Truex Jr.:  I think every single one of the seven other playoff drivers can reasonably be expected to contend for a victory this week. But two drivers in particular who aren’t getting as much consideration as they should be are who I’m focused on this week.

Truex in past years has been dominant, especially on tracks like Kansas. Dating back to its time as the No. 78 Furniture Row car, the current No. 19 team has succeeded like it’s their day job at the intermediate ovals. Truex swept the Kansas races in his 2017 championship season, and the round as a whole is a bright spot for the New Jersey native.

Alex Bowman, who got his second-career victory this season, will officially drive the No. 48 car in 2021.

He hasn’t been extremely successful in 2020 or during these playoffs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Truex could grab multiple wins in this round.

As for Alex Bowman, the combination of past success on intermediate ovals, as well as the confidence boost of having the No. 48 ride locked in for next year, unlike any he’s seen before, make him the ultimate sleeper for this round.

Kansas was the start of Bowman’s trio of consecutive second-place runs in early summer 2019. Both of his career wins have come at tracks very similar to Kansas, and the most recent intermediate race at Las Vegas saw Bowman run in the top five almost the entire race.

There’s almost no chance that the No. 88 team will point its way into the championship race, so it’ll take a victory to get them there. If they can’t get it at Kansas, they likely won’t get it at all, but trust that they’ll fight just as hard as everyone else to get to victory lane.

Thanks for reading. For more fantasy NASCAR and life advice, follow me on Twitter, @EHicks39, or check out more of my work at Elliot-Hicks.com.

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