- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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The lessons he learned a year ago are still paying major dividends for Kurt Busch. That was evident again Sunday, during the New England 300, when an early race spin left him mired deep in the pack.
Busch entered the race 10th in points, so a bad finish would have greatly hindered the driver looking to defend his Nextel Cup championship. So after venting his frustration, he calmly settled down and rallied for a second-place finish behind Tony Stewart.
Busch jumped to fifth in the points standings, with seven races to go before the field for the Chase for the Nextel Cup is set. And it's the ability to turn bad moments into solid finishes that makes Busch a major threat to win it all again, assuming he makes the Chase.
Busch found himself a lap down at both Charlotte, N.C., and Martinsville, Va., during last year's Chase, only to rally each time. Those were instrumental to his cause, and he flashed that same form at New Hampshire.
Even though he won at New Hampshire last July, second place wasn't a bad finish this time around -- especially because it lifted him in points, just as it did last July to help him make the Chase.
"Right now, consistency is the key," Busch said. "I would have loved to have won, but we're not on our last thread. It's the same feeling as last year. Let's run some races, get some nice, smooth finishes."
If Busch still feels the same way at the end of the Chase in November, he could prove to be the first repeat Cup champion since Jeff Gordon did the trick in 1997 and '98. Of course, the road to Busch's title in 2004 got off to a smooth start with his win at New Hampshire in September to start the Chase.
And even though Busch didn't really have anything for Stewart this past Sunday, he'll likely be a threat again in less than two months. Rest assured, Busch knows how important a strong run will be when the series returns to Loudon, N.H., assuming he's in the Chase.
"Internally, it was the best boost you could possibly get. It's like putting nitrous [oxide] in the carburetor -- away you go," Busch says of last year's win. "We ran ninth, 10th in points [leading up to the Chase]. I think we led the points at one point last year, but we went in seventh in points -- just a little bit under the radar, taking it cool -- and we knew what we had from the first Loudon race in July.
"So it's something that sets the tone for the team internally. The crew guys, when they jump over the wall they get pumped up. They have that adrenaline running, and when you can think about less, when you have to do your job, it seems like you have better results. So if we can have everything in the same fashion again when we show up in September, that's definitely more that can help us try to win the championship and defend this title."
First, though, Busch needs more solid finishes -- not to mention better racing luck -- in order to make the Chase. That includes avoiding the tire problems this weekend at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., that plagued some teams there in June.
Busch isn't worried about such concerns, saying changes made to the track should help. A bump has been smoothed out on the track, and the curbing that Goodyear thinks hurt the tires has been changed. In addition, Goodyear is telling teams to run higher air pressures this time around, which should help the tires hold up better.
And the driver also will do his part by playing it smart.
"The best way to explain it is a lot of guys say you have to be cautiously aggressive or however it may work," Busch says. "I don't know how that works. The way to go about it is consistency. That's the bottom line.
"Right now, we've had a great race car at all of these racetracks. We've been competitive. We've got stats right now that are comparable to be third in points, but we're 10th overall [prior to New Hampshire], which means we haven't been consistent. We've had problems with running into other cars on the track because some guys swerve to miss cars coming onto pit road. We've had flat tires, so on and so forth."
Busch said that consistency will be the key for teams struggling to secure berths in the Chase, and he took a step in the right direction at New Hampshire.
A year ago, he learned that things are a lot easier when you fight off the urge to panic when things go wrong. Two days before this year's New England 300, Busch aptly summed up the thought process that led to his runner-up finish.
"When you have things go wrong on pit road or when things happen out on the track that don't go in your favor and you get bumped back 10 positions, so be it," he said. "There is still a long distance to still race. There are more races that lead up to the final cutoff. There are so many things that come into play now that mean patience and not to panic and to make sure that your homework is done in advance.
"We've already gone through our testing program through the summer months to get ourselves ready for this stretch and then we have, I believe, five tests still saved for the final 10 events. We won't go and test at some of the tracks that we run good on, so that leaves maybe one or two tracks that will be in question for us, that we have to approach with [the philosophy] -- if we finish 10th, that's fine. We're not gonna stretch it to try to finish fifth, and hurt ourselves, and end up with a blown tire. So we're very conservative as far as our setups and sometimes that leads to victories."
It didn't lead to a win in New Hampshire, but it led to the next best thing. And a big jump in the standings for a driver who has shown he knows how to get the job done when NASCAR's postseason arrives.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.