Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 5 of 12)
When you quickly glance at Kurt Busch's numbers from 2010, it shows that he had a pretty decent season - two wins, two poles, nine top-fives, and 17 top-10 finishes. All in all, good numbers across the board - good enough for just 11th place in points.
To say the least, it was an enigmatic season for the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, who found himself in fifth place before the start of the Chase, within striking distance of another title.
Despite a regular season that saw wins at Atlanta and Charlotte, seven top-fives and 12 top-10's, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team went from good to just about average down the final stretch of the year. Witness:
Busch and crew chief Steve Addington kicked off their postseason efforts with a 13th at New Hampshire, followed by a strong fourth place at Dover, a somewhat disappointing 13th at Kansas, a troubling 21st in the 400-miler at Fontana, and a lost day at Charlotte with a 30th place result.
The final five races were equally as forgettable, including a 16th at Martinsville, 30th at Talladega, 24th at Texas, 6th at Phoenix, and a painful 18th at Homestead-Miami.
Clearly, when it came down to the most pivotal time of the stock car season, there were more questions than answers for the performance and finishes of the famed Penske team.
To Busch's defense, he hasn't forgotten how to drive a racecar, clearly shown by the fact that he led 842 laps, or 1029.91 miles, which was fourth best for the Cup tour this past season.
Additionally, he captured checkered flags at Atlanta in March and the Coca-Cola 600 in May, two wins that didn't come easy for the Las Vegas sensation.
It was also Busch's first full season working with Addington, who ironically led Kurt's younger brother, Kyle, in the Cup ranks from 2008 through parts of '09.
Surely, they were working out the kinks in terms of communication as well as feedback regarding the car's handling, as well as what adjustments to make to the "Blue Deuce."
While not a total "excuse" for the Penske organization, they were the only full-time Dodge effort this past season, with former Mopar manufacturer mates in Richard Petty Motorsports making the switch to Ford sheet metal.
Sure, it may not sound like a lot, considering the sad state of affairs with one of NASCAR's most legendary organizations, but in the grand scheme of things, Penske's drivers and teams only had each other to rely on as far as improving their cars.
Unlike GM, Ford, and Toyota, who at least have a multitude of teams to flock to in terms of gathering and exchanging data, Penske found itself in a tight spot with the Dodge Charger R/T.
Another problem for Busch, as well as the entire Dodge contingency, was that they were lacking in power and the aerodynamic balance that their competitors were able to work on throughout the season, especially with the switch from the wing to spoiler.
Add these issues all up and it's no wonder that the Dodge triumvirate were even lucky enough to compete against the Goliaths of the sport, particularly with the stout efforts of Busch, Addington, and the No. 2 team.
As Mrs. Doubtfire once famously said, well, "help is on the way," especially for the Dodge racing efforts. Penske's fleet will have a completely redone nose, as mentioned in the Brad Keselowski preview.
While the Car of Tomorrow cars hardly resemble their aerodynamically slick predecessors, the new nose for Dodge may give them that small advantage to stay with the front pack in similar fashion to Busch's efforts in 2010.
Also, Busch will have a new sponsor and number to boot starting in '11, piloting the yellow and red No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.
Perhaps a new outlook and identity for the 32-year-old is just what he needed, especially considering the tall order that came with being Rusty Wallace's successor.
Like in previous years, there were occasions in which Busch's temper got the best of him.
Once again, at Martinsville (site of the infamous "dude" calling incident from Busch to team owner Roger Penske), aggression flared up in the form of deliberate contact with Jeff Gordon, which resulted in a moderately damaged No. 24 Chevrolet.
Standing his ground, Busch claimed the move was pulled off to basically atone for all the wrongdoings that Gordon pulled on the No. 2 ride at Martinsville over the years.
Clearly, the will to win is still there, no matter who's racing alongside him, along with the circumstances surrounding his efforts.
However, that bit of aggression has to be harnessed or channeled in such a way that instead of fueling him towards a boiling point, he'll press on to get the best finish possible in each race.
Such was the case in 2009, where consistency and solid finishes parlayed his efforts to a fourth place result in the final points rundown - just behind the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Gordon.
Another aspect of improvement for Busch and company are pit stops. It's been years since the former champion's had a pit crew that he could brag about with the likes of his younger brother Kyle and competitors like Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Clint Bowyer.
Overall, if the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge team can get its act together in terms of improving pit stops, finishing races, and harnessing their driver's aggression just a degree or two, an eighth place finish in the final points standings for 2011 looks quite realistic.
Then again, anything is possible with Kurt Busch, who's proven countless times in his career that he can get the most out of a racecar in any race.