The end of Kurt Busch’s race at Martinsville was in sight when Brad Keselowski pulled in front of him and displayed a middle finger out the driver’s side window after just 85 of 500 laps Sunday.
Busch was already downtrodden and sounded mentally checked out from an earlier incident with Keselowski. The two made contact on pit road, sending a fuming Keselowski to the garage and leaving Busch with a self-described damning prognosis.
“The left rear just got hammered,” Busch told his crew over the radio. “We’re probably screwed for the rest of the day.”
It was a familiar tone for Busch. He’s been a part of a lot of disappointment in his last two seasons, and many times the problems had compounded after Busch would lose his composure in the race car. He would alternately bark and scream at his crew or just take on a despondent attitude of expected failure.
Often, his attitude let the situation get worse.
It could have gotten much worse Sunday when Keselowski kept the finger flying for over a lap as he slowed and forced Busch to initiate contact in response to the earlier collision. Busch didn’t back down. He walloped Keselowski’s rear bumper, pushing both cars high in the corner. Keselowski stomped the brakes, slowing each and Busch weaved left.
Side-by-side on Martinsville’s backstretch, they rubbed fenders and seemed destined for the Turn 3 wall. Somehow, neither crashed.
On the radio, Busch fumed. He promised to fight Keselowski after the race.
Recent experience made it seem clear that Busch wasn’t in any position to contend – much less finish.
Boy, did he prove that expectation wrong.
Busch never let the moment fully overwhelm him. He got back to work behind the wheel to put himself in position to actually win the race. By the end – despite a back-and-forth tango with Jimmie Johnson in the late laps – Busch came out on top.
What exactly led to the difference in Busch’s mindset isn’t clear. It’s probably a combination of things – Busch is driving the best equipment he’s likely ever had and he’s working for sponsor and team owner looking to maximize trophies even at the expense of wrecked race cars – that have Busch wanting to prevent his return to the exile of mid-pack competition.
Whatever it is, it all clicked Sunday at Martinsville. That’s a huge step for Kurt Busch.
Hot: Steve Letarte is growing harder to replace for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The crew chief, now in his last season before moving to NBC’s television booth in next year, took a 20th-place car after practice Friday and tuned it to a third-place finisher by Sunday without the aid of Saturday practice sessions.
Not: Plenty has been made about NASCAR’s changes in the offseason to various suspension pieces and downforce packages that have changed the handling characteristics of the Sprint Cup machines. Does that explain how Jeff Gordon (12th), Tony Stewart (17th) and Denny Hamlin (19th) were never factors at Martinsville?
Hot: I’m ready to pencil Marcos Ambrose in as a favorite to win on one of two road courses this season and become a surprise Chase entrant. Perhaps it’s time to consider the realistic possibility that Ambrose could win an oval race after finishing fifth Sunday.
Not: Parker Kligerman – 41st Sunday – can’t catch a break. In six races, he’s suffered a crash or mechanical problem in each. Will that current shift soon? That team desperately needs something different.
Hot: This business about six winners in six different races is an encouraging start to the season. You’ve got to figure we’re on pace for a high number of regular season winners, but I doubt the sport gets to 16 by Richmond. I’d peg the number at 13 for now.
Not: I admire Brad Keselowski’s passion, but he should probably have someone review his incidents before placing direct blame and then seeking on-track retribution. Kurt Busch did nothing wrong on pit road Sunday. It was an accident, and those happen.
Hot: AJ Allmendinger continues to impress. He was 11th on Sunday to follow an eighth-place run at California last week. He’s been no worse than 26th this season.
Not: After two straight finishes in the Top-20 and top-20s at Martinsville last year, I expected more than a 32nd-place finish for Danica Patrick at Martinsville.
Drivers Eligible for the Chase:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Daytona)
Kevin Harvick (Phoenix)
Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas)
Carl Edwards (Bristol)
Kyle Busch (California)
Kurt Busch (Martinsville)
Up next: Texas Motor Speedway, Sunday 3:16 p.m/ET