A bitter departure from his old team and bad press from a police pullover made last year a season Kurt Busch was eager to forget. But at least he was a top-10 contender and had wheels under him that he felt comfortable would compete.
That feeling, and those high finishes, have been few and far between this year, his inaugural season as driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge. Last weekend's second-place finish at Pocono was just Busch's third top-10 this year.
Three highlights out of 14 events is a serious dry spell for the 2004 Nextel Cup champ, but he is choosing to concentrate on his latest high and what it might mean for the rest of the season.
"I think it builds a solid foundation in being able to know the team put me back out front when we came in leading," Busch said after Pocono. "They felt that adrenaline of running up front. This is a whole new group of guys, a new crew chief, everybody over the wall is in different spots. We might have one guy the same. Just to have that overall feeling to know we can do it [is big]."
Busch had complained about the Dodges he'd been given to date. He said they had handling problems and weren't competitive. Sunday's car was much different. And the pit crew matched the tenacity of the rig.
"The last stop was a 12.3 [seconds]," Busch said of the critical pit stop that ensured his runner-up finish. "[We had] 13-second stops all day. They turned a top-five car into a second-place finish."
A finish that felt more like a win, Busch said, "because of our recent struggles, up and down. I finished 16th last week. We struggled at Charlotte with that real hard tire. This was a nice, solid car. It turned when I needed it to. It stuck with the rear end when I needed it to."
With some more solid cars, Busch is hopeful that he might crack the top 10 because he sees some of his favorite tracks coming up on the schedule.
"I really enjoy running at Sonoma," he said. "I finished third there last year. The 400 at Daytona is any man's race and we feel like we've got solid restrictor-plate cars. We've got a good stretch of tracks coming up, and I really hope we're able to put some impact in as far as our finish to gain some points.
"We've just had a string of bad luck, initiated by cars not handling well. Then you put yourself in position in the back where things happen. This is a nice, solid run. Now we're back in June and we're ready to rock 'n' roll."
At 17th in the standings, he's hoping to roll into his third-consecutive Chase by sneaking into the top 10 within the next dozen events. He's 187 points behind his brother Kyle, who sits 10th.
"We're at the halfway point and we're not that far out of 10th place," he said. "We'll have to work hard and start getting top-fives and top-10s, but we've got some good tracks coming up. It'll be a challenge, but it'll be fun trying.
"We'll never give up and it's really way too early to discount the top 20 or so guys. All you have to do is look back to see what Matt [Kenseth] did last year and you know that if you can get things going in the right direction, hold on buddy, because it's not over till it's over. But, the bottom line is that now is the time that we have to rise up and get after it. We're going to have to really kick it into overdrive and start logging those top-fives and top-10s from here on out."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.