Busch returns to contender form

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Busch returns to contender form

This is familiar territory for Kurt Busch. One year ago, his win in the March race at Bristol Motor Speedway vaulted Busch to second in the championship standings behind Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Then, the following week, Busch...

This is familiar territory for Kurt Busch.

One year ago, his win in the March race at Bristol Motor Speedway vaulted Busch to second in the championship standings behind Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Then, the following week, Busch charged from his 30th starting position to a ninth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Race winner Kurt Busch celebrates.
Photo by Autostock.
After his win at Bristol last weekend, Busch hopes to continue the trend with another strong run in Texas on Sunday in the Samsung/RadioShack 500 (1:00 p.m. ET on FOX).

"We've had some consistent runs the past two weeks, and were able to lead the most laps at Darlington and Bristol," Busch explains. "We're where we need to be in the point standings right now, so we just want to continue to hit our marks this week in Texas."

The team is bringing the same car that finished 12th at Atlanta three weeks ago and they took advantage of a single-day test at Texas last week to get the car ready for this weekend. Busch cruised to a fourth place finish in his Cup debut at Texas in 2001 before a 23rd place finish the following year.

"We have run okay here, but never as well as we've wanted to," admitted crew chief Jimmy Fennig. "We learned a lot of things on our first day here -- so much that we originally had planned on testing for two days, but we decided to save that second date for later in the season. The car ran well in Atlanta, so we'll have to see how it handles on this smooth track with the new tires."

Busch enjoys running at the seven-year-old 1.5 mile circuit even though the team has had mixed results on the so-called "cookie-cutter tracks." Busch won at Atlanta in 2002, but suffered through three engine failures on the intermediate circuits last season.

Kurt Busch.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
"I know that at first glance this track looks a lot like Atlanta and Charlotte, but for the drivers it's a completely different scenario than what you have at the other mile and a half tri-ovals," Busch explains. "Texas is very fast and smooth with a lot of grip in the corners. Over the years the racing surface has developed nicely, and the second groove should work its way in over the weekend."

Busch won four races in 2003 for the second straight year, but his post-Michigan run-in with Jimmy Spencer last August sent his season into a nosedive. He was booed mercilessly after winning the following week at Bristol and then managed just three top-10 finishes in the final 12 races. He dropped out of the top-10 in the championship standings in the last race of the year.

The backlash from the Spencer incident weighed on Busch and the #97 Sharpie Ford team, but they returned to the track in 2004 with renewed optimism that they can challenge for the NEXTEL Cup.

"It's just a fresh start to a year because 2004 has a lot on the horizon for the 97 team," Busch said. "It's just like my rookie year all over again. I'm very upbeat and willing to learn all the different elements and have to apply them to the race track."

Busch has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the NASCAR ranks. The 25-year-old Las Vegas native spent three seasons in the Featherlite Southwest Series, winning the championship in 1999. The following year, he won four races and finished second in the championship standings in the Craftsman Truck Series.

He managed three top-5 finishes as a rookie in the NEXTEL Cup series in 2001 before winning four races and finishing third as a sophomore in 2002.

"Kurt is great," admitted team owner Jack Roush. "He was great in the truck. He was great back home before he came in from Las Vegas and joined us a few years ago. (He) has learned things that I think he would admit that he probably didn't know - that have been useful to him about the business that we're in and how he needs to manage Kurt.

"He didn't have that experience, but he's been tested under fire in the meantime and I think he's come through it very well."

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Series NASCAR-CUP