LOUDON, N.H. — Kurt Busch’s slow climb out of a deep hole in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings started in early May.
At one point he was sitting 24th in the points and the Chase seemed miles out of his reach.
But he worked his way back into the picture one race at a time.
It started when he won the pole for the Southern 500 at Darlington on May 11 and finished 14th. Over the next seven races he hauled in two top-five finishes and five top-10s, and pulled his No. 4 Interstate Batteries Toyota into the ninth spot in the standings.
As the second half of the Sprint Cup Series season starts this week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch has gotten back into contention by being a picture of consistency.
As much as wins matter, running quality races is just as important, said Busch. After qualifying second for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301, he has a chance to add another strong run to this midseason push.
“I think it’s going to come down to a situation where you want to control your own destiny,” he said. “If we can do that and go the next seven weeks and have good runs, you don’t have to win but you have to stay away from those bad finishes. If you do just nice consistent runs then you control your own destiny.”
The deck for Sunday’s race has already been sufficiently shuffled. Points leader Jimmie Johnson will start from the very back of the pack after failing a post-qualifying inspection. Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who at present sits one spot out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, has a chance to gain ground after winning the pole.
With eight races left until the Chase, the standings couldn’t be tighter. Only 30 points separate Kasey Kahne in the 12th spot (the last wild card) and Paul Menard at 20.
“I think the biggest thing to look at is that the points from eighth to 18th, I might be off a little bit by a position at the top or the bottom, but there is that many more cars that are eligible,” Busch said. “It hasn’t been like this in years past. Usually it’s three guys shooting for one spot or it’s five guys shooting for two spots. We now have 10 guys it seems like that have a shot at eight, a wild card, or getting in the top 10 outright.”
While Busch has used consistency to pull himself out of an early hole, the reality is that there’s no formula.
Drivers are at a point where they have to weigh whether they can help themselves more by being steady over the several races or by being aggressive and going after wins to move up in the points.
Joey Logano hasn’t won a race this season, but he’s finished in the top five in five of his past seven starts and sits three spots out of the Chase, despite last week’s 40th-place finish at Daytona.
“I think you need to be looking for consistency like you have been over the last 10, 12 races that has gotten us from 20th in the points to 10th going into last week,” said Logano, who will start in the 13th row. “We have to be able to keep that going. We are not at the point where we can risk it. I look at the way [Matt Kenseth] won at Kentucky by staying out [skipping a late tire change].
“That could have gone really bad for him but he was able to win the race. We aren’t in the position to go for those big moves like that to win a race that way. We have to win them the other way, actually being the fastest car. We are working on making our cars faster and consistently finishing in the top five or top 10 and get the points back that we lost last week.”
The path to the championship can be just as tricky. Four of the past six Sprint Cup champions have won at least two Chase races.
Last year, Keselowski won twice, but he was also constantly in front of the pack. He finished in the top 10 in eight of the 10 Chase races and never finished out of the top 15.
Winning, he said, doesn’t always mean finishing first.
“On any given day at the racetrack, the win is defined differently based on what you have for a car and team to work with,” Keselowski said. “Sometimes the win is simple: You win the race. You take a fast car and you find a way to get up front and lead laps and win. Sometimes the win might be having a 15th- or 20th-place car and finishing in the top five. That might be the win. And I know that’s really hard for some people to see . . . but it’s just as important as being able to take a winning car and win with it — and it’s just as impressive to me.”
But in 2011, the only way Tony Stewart could capture the Cup was to grab as many checkered flags as he could.
He went winless in the first 26 events of the season, and seemed ready to write off the idea of winning a championship, going into the Chase as the ninth seed.
But he won five of the Chase races, rabidly chased after leader Carl Edwards. He trailed Edwards by 3 points going into the last race of the season at Homestead, and it came down to the last lap. Stewart crossed the finish line 1.3 seconds before Edwards to win it, and the difference was crucial.
They finished the year tied in the points, but the tiebreaker was who had more wins during the season. Stewart had five. Edwards had one.
Jimmie Johnson has twice won championships while winning just one Chase race. Consistency carried him.
He got off to a rough start in the 2010 Chase opener in Loudon, getting into a late-race crash and ultimately finishing 25th. It left him sixth in the standings.
The next week, he won the AAA 400 in Dover, Del. He finished in the top five in six of the final nine races to win the last of his five straight titles.
Johnson has won four of his 18 starts this season with 12 top-10s and he’s sitting on a 49-point lead over Clint Bowyer going into Sunday’s race, but he knows how important the stretch of races leading up to the Chase will be.
“Right now, we have a big points lead, but that all goes away when the Chase gets here and that changes the game,” Johnson said. “We still have a few months before the Chase starts and we know how fast things can change in the garage area and the speed that an organization may have might not be there two months from now.”