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."