It's hard to think of Kurt Busch as a late bloomer. The 26-year-old Las Vegas native has enjoyed a meteoric rise to stock car racing's highest level. Yet Busch always seems to save his best for last.
Fast forward to 2004 and Busch is working on a similar streak. With the new Chase for the Championship points system, the driver that racks up the most points in the final 10 races will drive away with the inaugural NEXTEL Cup.
Busch won the first "playoff" race six weeks ago in New Hampshire. Since then, he has wheeled his way to five finishes of sixth or better. He is the only driver in the Chase to finish each of the six playoff races in the top-10 and currently has a 96-point lead over second-place Jeff Gordon.
Busch is looking to pad that lead with a strong run in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 on Sunday (12:00 p.m. ET on NBC) at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"You've got to step up to the plate and race hard each of these final 10," admitted Busch, who was seventh in the standings after 26 races. "We had a regular season and now we have a playoff and right now we haven't had a bad finish. I hope that we can stay away from that and run consistently for the win."
Busch qualified 22nd for Sunday's race - he will start behind every other driver in the championship hunt other than teammate Matt Kenseth, who used a provisional to make the field. It will be the third time in the past four races that Busch has rolled off the starting grid from the 11th row. But each week, Busch has worked his way through the field for a strong finish.
Others have taken notice of the results.
"You know, there's always one guy who keeps that ball rolling and it looks like Kurt is that guy right now," said Tony Eury Sr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He's always been kind of like that David Pearson - you don't see him for a while and then at the end of the race, there he is. That's kind of the way Matt (Kenseth) was last year. They've just got a way of getting in that top 10 every week. That's what it takes."
Busch has enjoyed some success at the 1.54-mile circuit. One of his late-season wins in 2002 came at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Atlanta is the fastest race track we go to, but its one of those tracks where Kurt has won before, so we feel good about our driver this week," said crew chief Jimmy Fennig. "We're taking the same car that we took earlier this year to Atlanta that we ended up with some damage in practice and had to go with the back-up car, but the same car finished well at both Charlotte races this year, so we should be all right."
Busch would like nothing more than to clinch Roush Racing's second straight championship, but despite his youth, he knows that a lot can happen in the final four races and that one bad outing could cost him the points lead.
"It's a matter of keeping things in perspective," admits Busch, who led a race-high 120 laps last weekend in Martinsville before finishing fifth. "Our sponsors are getting excited and the team is definitely feeling a bit closer to things, but we have to definitely look at each event individually and each day individually."