Man On a Mission
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on June 21, 2013 | 11:45 A.M. EST
Busch sits 20th in the standings, just 33 points out of 10th with 11 races left before the Chase field is set. (Photo: Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO - The optimist relishes the opportunity. The pragmatist understands the challenge. The pessimist laments the chore.
Only 33 points separate 10th through 20th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma. That’s critical with 10th the last guaranteed spot in the Chase.
So how does Kurt Busch, who fell five spots to 20th last weekend, view his predicament?
He looks to the competitor in 10th that he’s chasing.
"Tony Stewart’s season, we were all starting to think, 'Wow, those guys have had a rough year,' " Busch said. "They win at Dover and next thing you know, he’s in the Chase right now. One week can change your season."
A week after a mistake hurt his season, Busch hopes he can rebound at a course where he won two years ago and finished third last year. If he can do that, he could regain the positions he lost when he crashed early at Michigan.
Even with Busch’s slip, the gap between 10th and 20th has not been this close in the previous two seasons with this points system. The driver in 20th has been at least 79 points behind the driver in 10th at this time of the season.
The close margin between Busch and Stewart is tantalizing with 11 races left until the Chase field is set. Busch knows he can’t afford many more mistakes and have a chance to lead his Furniture Row Racing team into the Chase.
"It’s going to take consistency to get into the Chase by being in the top 10 in points," he said. "It’s a matter of just putting your blinders on and not trying to find anything extra out of the car, just take what the car is going to give you.
"That’s where I messed up last week. Our setup was awesome-fast by itself. As soon as you threw it into traffic, it was like you unloaded a can of bees in the car. I couldn’t steer it. I was swatting left, swatting right. We missed the setup in traffic. We have to find more stability in our car in traffic if we’re going to do well."
He’s not alone. Former champion Jeff Gordon is 16th in the standings, 19 points out of 10th despite two finishes of 35h or worse in the last four races. Also trying to make the Chase after being in it last season are Kasey Kahne (10 points out of 10th) and Martin Truex Jr. (12 points back).
"This sport continues to get more competitive and more competitive every single race," said Greg Biffle, who is eighth in the standings, 26 points ahead of 10th place. "The window is so small ... and these cars are very, very sensitive. Because we've optimized to about every point on the car, the same thing is happening in the points. We're so fine-tuned that a little bit either way can move you way up and down in points, or can put you from running in a top-five car to running 20th and you're wondering, 'What in the world is wrong with my car?' "
Sunday’s race at Sonoma could further alter the standings. With its beating and banging, it’s easy for a driver to lose several spots and points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was collected in a last-lap incident last year and lost 10 spots. If a driver between 10th and 20th suffers the same fate as Earnhardt, they could fall in the standings as much as Busch did after Michigan.
"I really enjoy road-course racing but lately, it’s gotten out of hand on these restarts with people banging into one another," said Jeff Burton, 17th in the standings, 27 points behind 10th. "Track position is huge now because when you get back in the middle of the pack on a restart, it is comparable to racing at a restrictor-plate track in that you’ll just have to assume there is a high chance you will be in a wreck.
"You try to protect yourself from it, but it doesn’t matter because someone will just run over you. If you aren’t exceptionally aggressive and pushing the guy in front of you out of the way, then someone is going to run you over. I’m a fan of aggressive racing, but I’m not a fan of people running over each other."
With a chance to gain a few positions on the track - and in the standings - such aggression will be common Sunday. It’s just a matter of who benefits and who is hurt by such actions.
"We spent two months going from 24th to 15th in points," Busch said. "It’s so easy to lose points. It’s so difficult to gain."