THE GREATEST OF all motorsports debates is also its oldest: What matters more, the machine or the person driving it? From Fireball Roberts to Jimmie Johnson, no NASCAR racer has ever had success without rivals griping that the only reason he won more races was that his team had the cash to wrangle the best equipment and crew. And over the past decade and a half, as stock car racing has crept further from grease-stained garages and into the clean rooms of aerospace engineering, gauging a driver's true talent has become increasingly difficult.
"That top level of teams, everybody's good and everybody's got cars and engines that last, and now the rules are such that it keeps more cars on the lead lap," says seven-time Cup Series champ Richard Petty. "When you make it all so equal, a guy who maybe isn't all that great can hide out, or it prevents a guy who is really good from breaking away from the pack. That's why, these days, if a driver really separates himself, it gets your attention."
Over the past two seasons, Kurt Busch has done just that. His remarkable runs in unremarkable race cars have rekindled the promise of his early career, as well as the imagination of those who had resigned themselves to the thought that perhaps NASCAR, once the unquestioned realm of the race car driver, had been lost forever to laptops in the nerditorium. "I have good news for the doubters out there: Yes, the driver still makes a difference," Busch said with admitted pride during the January media blitz announcing his new ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, alongside new boss Tony Stewart and teammates Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick. "Unfortunately, I had to take a trip down a very hard road to prove that point."
Busch, 35, won 24 races and a Cup Series title in a decade driving for NASCAR superpowers Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske. But his abrasive attitude and a series of public outbursts forced his release by Roger Penske at the end of 2011, and he was essentially blackballed by NASCAR's top tier. Out of moves, in 2012 he landed at bare-bones Phoenix Racing, a team that had won one race in 195 previous tries and employs only a dozen full-timers. (Penske is home to 230-plus.) In 29 starts with Phoenix, Busch earned a top-10 finish at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and a third-place finish on the Sonoma road course. "I call those 'driver top-10s,'" says former Phoenix owner James Finch, who sold the team in the offseason. "You can't 'oops' your way to the front at Fontana. And you sure as hell can't do it on a road course."
In late 2012, Busch moved from Phoenix to Furniture Row Racing, a one-car outfit in Denver, the only full-time Sprint Cup team based outside of Greater Charlotte, N.C. Once a "start-and-park" that would merely take the green flag, pull off the track and go home, FRR started racing for real in 2010. The team's lone win, with driver Regan Smith at Darlington in 2011, is considered one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history. "For Kurt, it was a chance to take another step back up the ladder," says Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone, who once served as crew chief for surefire Hall of Famer Bill Elliott. "For us, it was a chance to use him as a gauge: Did we have the kind of equipment that could run up front consistently, or were we still a ways off?"
Busch's 2013 performance wowed everyone. Before his arrival, Furniture Row had posted three top-fives. In his 42 races for FRR, he scored 11. The team's first five drivers led a total of 48 laps over 192 races; last season alone, Busch led 448. And though he didn't win a race, he did make the 13-car Chase field -- the NASCAR equivalent of the Pittsburgh Pirates going to the MLB playoffs. "There were a lot of drivers quietly pulling for Kurt, even the guys who have had run-ins with him over the years," says Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He was doing stuff with those cars that reminded everyone that the driver still means something."
Count Kurt Busch among those reminded. As kids, he and little brother Kyle built and tweaked the chassis of their race cars. As a 22-year-old rookie, Kurt blew the mind of his crew chief, Junior Johnson-trained Jeff Hammond, by whipping out a protractor and crawling up the asphalt to measure the banking of the Texas Motor Speedway's turns. Likewise, he forever impressed old-school crew chief Jimmy Fennig during their 2004 championship run with "a brain like a computer when it came to feedback and remembering things that went on out on the track at 200 mph."
But Busch admits that, as his career progressed, he lost touch with all of that; he'd become too reliant on engineers and their mountains of data. Having to go back and drive for teams with more limited resources, particularly when it came to over-the-wall pit crew talent, helped him rediscover what he first loved about being a race car driver. "It became a question of: What can I do behind the wheel to make up for other things? Little things like knowing there's a certain time of day at the Atlanta Motor Speedway when the sun is going down and the shade starts to cover the area up by the wall in Turns 1 and 2. You put your right-side tires up into that little bit of shade and you're going to haul ass."
Says new teammate Harvick: "Out on the track or standing on top of a truck in the garage and watching Kurt run laps, even in practice, you could see a shift in what he was doing. He was constantly pushing that car as far it would go to see how far it would go. The eyeball test was off the charts."
The metrics back those eyeballs. Every NASCAR stock car carries a NASA-like conglomeration of recorders and transponders that constantly collect performance information. Since 2005, those numbers have been gathered using multiple receivers placed around every racetrack, as opposed to the old method of a long checkpoint at the start-finish line. As a result of this "loop data," a much clearer picture of what drivers do and where they do it is drawn in every lap of every race. For instance, in 2013 Busch ranked ninth in Fastest Laps Run, which tracks each driver's fastest single trip around the track in each race. He was also sixth fastest on Restarts, which measures speed on the first two laps run coming out of every caution period. "We didn't do him any favors on pit stops," confesses Garone, saying that the difficulty in hiring top pit talent is the real detriment to being based outside North Carolina. "But on restarts, everyone's on a level playing field. It's all about driver talent and strategy. Go back and look at the tape of the Labor Day Atlanta race in particular. Kurt routinely passed four, five, eight cars on every restart. We started that race 32nd and finished fourth."
What really excites those who crunch NASCAR's loop numbers is Busch's fourth-place ranking in Quality Passes, which measures the number of times a driver passes another car running in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions. And Mike Forde, NASCAR's senior manager of content communications, is equally impressed that Busch ranked seventh in Speed in Traffic. "This is a highly underrated stat," says Forde, whose nickname is Loop Dogg. "This measures the speed when there is another car within one car length, aka the guts of a driver, and his talent considering the high speed, drafting, etc."
For those not into data, they can just look at the results. At Bristol in March, Busch overcame a loose wheel on an early pit stop and a bashed nose on his car to finish fourth. The next week at Fontana, he slipped in oil dumped onto the track by a lapped car and plowed the wall, falling to 31st place. Busch quickly raced back up to 17th before getting penalized for speeding on Pit Road and fell back to 32nd, one lap down. But he came back to finish fifth -- the first back-to-back top-fives in Furniture Row Racing history. Says Garone: "There's no better example of a driver bailing out a team -- and himself -- just by driving the heck out of a race car."
That driving has Busch back on the top tier, his success on the lower rungs having caught the eye of Stewart's billionaire co-owner, Gene Haas, who basically created a fourth SHR team just to hire Busch. In NASCAR, second chances are as rare as a Phoenix Racing race win, and Busch knows that this likely is his last shot to live among racing's elite. "My road has not been easy. But what it has done is remind me how much fun this can be. And that, in the end, no one is holding that steering wheel in his hands but me."