Kurt Busch's Long Road Back

Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch scored his first Sprint Cup win Sunday at Martinsville Speedway since Oct. 2011 at Dover. (Photo: Getty Images)


The cap to the comeback, naturally, would not be easy. Of course it wouldn’t. This is Kurt Busch after all. Things don’t come easy whether it was how he won the 2004 series title or the purgatory his temper sent him.

Sunday, his two-plus-year exile from Victory Lane ended in among the least likely places and least likely ways.

At Martinsville Speedway. Beating Jimmie Johnson.

While Busch won at Martinsville in 2002, he had not had a top-10 finish there the past eight years. Yes, years.

To even have a chance to win, Busch had to beat Johnson, arguably one of the greatest drivers at Martinsville with eight wins and no finish worse than 12th in nearly 12 years there.

So, naturally, Busch just did that, returning to Victory Lane for the first time since Oct. 2011 at Dover - before a series of emotional outbursts led to a parting with Team Penske and forced Busch to take a ride with underfunded Phoenix Racing and begin his public rehabilitation.

To understand what it meant for Busch to win again, one needs to go back to the 2012 Sonoma race with Phoenix Racing that he lost.

Busch’s car had no sponsor, the car’s hood naked as a newborn. He hadn’t finished better than ninth that season, was suspended a race by NASCAR for verbal abuse of a journalist and was in a streak of six consecutive races where he finished no better than 20th.

Yet, that day at Sonoma, Busch was fast. He started eighth and ran near the front  much of the day. His team’s pit work - which can be a casualty on low-budget teams - kept him in position all day. Busch did the rest. He was second late in the race until clipping a stack of tires in the hairpin when he tried to cut the corner. The contact damaged his car. His chance for a win gone. He finished third.

Busch choked back tears afterward as he talked about the mistake he made that cost his underdog team a chance for the win. It was a side of Busch few had seen.

That day hurt because Busch knew his chances of winning most races were unlikely. So any chance he had meant that much more. Even when he moved to Furniture Row Racing, victories eluded him. While he helped that team become the first single-car operation to make the Chase, the sport is still about winning and he didn’t.

Entering this year, Busch’s chances of winning improved but still there were obstacles. He had a new team hastily put together after car owner Gene Haas decided late last season to add a fourth car. Busch had a first-time crew chief. So far this season, Busch’s team struggled until a third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway.

Next was Martinsville and Busch’s fortune didn’t appear as if it would turn.

So it did.

Remember, this is a driver who overcame a variety of incidents throughout the inaugural Chase to win the 2004 Cup title. He’s used to challenges, although none has been greater than returning to the top of the sport after his fall.

Sunday, Busch led until Johnson passed him with 18 laps to go. Busch didn’t blink. He scooted by Johnson seven laps later and held on for his 25th career victory.

Busch was so excited afterward, he stood on the roof of the car. It’s a practice drivers used to do before NASCAR discouraged it. That was the least of Busch’s concerns after he exited his car.

“It's a moment of self‑satisfaction and enjoyment of all the hard work that I've put in and all of the people that have been around me to help me,’’ Busch said. “You've got to put life in perspective, and you have to learn from your mistakes, and you can't just sit there and try to muscle your way individually through certain situations, and so you rely on your experience level, you rely on your team, and this is a great day for me to be able to lift the trophy in Victory Lane for Stewart‑Haas Racing.’’               

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