Paired with new crew chief Pat Tryson, Kurt Busch is back in winning form and looking like a Cup contender
KURT BUSCH ducked his head into the driving rain that pounded the Irish Hills of Michigan on Aug. 19, jogging toward a hospitality tent located on an outer field at Michigan International Speedway. As soon as Busch stepped under the white canopy, he was greeted by something that, for him, is as rare as a four-leaf clover: thunderous applause.
"It sure is nice to see some friendly faces," said Busch to the crowd of admiring fans. "I get booed a lot, but this year I'm going to give all of you something to cheer about, because we've got as good a chance as anyone to win this championship."
It's true that Busch, 29, never fails to elicit more boos than cheers in prerace introductions—thanks mostly to some run-ins with more respected drivers early in his career—but for those who are his fans, these are happy days indeed. Over the past month no driver in the Cup series has been more dominant than Busch, who was the 2004 champion but has struggled ever since. From June 25 on, Busch has climbed from 16th to 12th in the standings. He has won two of the last four races, and after finishing sixth last Saturday night in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, he now holds a 158-point advantage over Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 12th and final berth in the Chase with only two races remaining in NASCAR's regular season.
So what has triggered Busch's renaissance? To find the answer, go back to May 23. That morning Jack Roush, the owner of Roush Fenway Racing, fired Pat Tryson, the crew chief for slumping driver Greg Biffle. At the time, Busch's team owner, Roger Penske, was searching for a new crew chief for Busch. Roy McCauley had begun the season atop Busch's pit box, but he took a leave of absence to care for his wife, who has cancer. Troy Raker filled in for McCauley, but he didn't want the job full time. Penske offered the gig to Tryson, who viewed it as an opportunity to salvage his career.
"When you get fired in the middle of the season, you start thinking about how you're going to support your family," says Tryson. "It was scary."
Penske hired Tryson on June 19, and the chemistry between Tryson and his new driver was virtually immediate. Busch also had been fired by Roush (at the end of the 2005 season), and being cast aside has left both Busch and Tryson with an edgy, this-is-my-last-chance attitude. "You could say we both have chips on our shoulders," says Busch, "and that's turned out to be a good thing."
Tryson quickly overhauled the setups on Busch's cars, and on Aug. 5, in just their sixth start together, the duo took the checkered flag at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, ending a 51-race winless streak for Busch. That afternoon Busch's number 2 Dodge was untouchable, as he led 175 of the 200 laps. He won again two weeks later at Michigan, and as soon as he hopped out of his car in Victory Lane, he gave one person the credit for his rebirth: the 43-year-old Tryson.
"Usually it takes a long time to build up that rapport with a crew chief, but Kurt and Pat are clicking as good as any driver and crew chief in the sport," says rival Kyle Petty. "They're both straight shooters, and that has helped their communication. They're going to be tough to beat."
Petty is right: For the first time Penske Racing, long a powerhouse in the Indy Racing League, is emerging as a credible Cup contender. Love him or loathe him, NASCAR's black knight is back.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.
1 Carl Edwards (right) won his second Cup race of the season last Saturday night at Bristol. Currently fifth in the standings, Edwards is locked into the Chase, and he is peaking at the right time, having finished eighth or better in five of his last seven starts.
2 After struggling all year, Kasey Kahne led a race-high 305 laps at Bristol and finished a season-best second, but that doesn't mean his woes are over. Kahne's No. 1 trouble has been with aerodynamics, and that's less of a factor at Bristol than at any track on the Cup circuit.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH)
WINNING PAIR Since joining with Tryson (inset) in June Busch has two victories.
CAROLYN KASTER/AP (TRYSON)