RICHMOND — Kurt Busch is a past Sprint Cup Series champion and currently holds a six-point cushion for 10th place in the Cup standings: the final automatic position into the Chase. And yet the question about whether he felt like an underdog to make the Chase going into the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday still made a lot of sense.
How can he not feel like an underdog? After a decade driving for two of NASCAR's richest outfits, he was shunted two years ago to the wilderness of mid-to-back-of-the-pack teams more because of personality than a lack of ability.
Now he has Furniture Row, which has never finished higher than 24th in the Cup standings, on the verge of becoming the first single-car team to make the Chase. Don't expect him to chuck that motivation going into the 400-lap, 300-mile race on the 3/4-of-a-mile RIR oval.
"I feel we're the underdog and it's fine to be that," Busch said. "I enjoy the underdog role: I'm a Chicago Cubs fan for life.
"To feel this energy and to feel this excitement of trying to deliver for the team: I like these pressure cooker situations."
Busch prevailed in one of the most high-pressure situations in NASCAR history in 2004 to win the first Chase. After he barley avoided slamming the pit road entry wall when a tire rolled off of his car, Busch edged Jimmie Johnson for the title by eight points, or less than two finishing positions.
He says that he has not been in as intense a situation at the end of the season since. Busch realizes it would be a big deal to drive a single-car team into the Chase, but stopped short of comparing it to his championship.
"It's a significant accomplishment and it's uncharted territory for a single-car team to make it," Busch said. "But I don't race for 10th place.
"Championships are what every driver sets out to achieve."
While most are focusing on his battle with Jeff Gordon, six points back in 11th place, Busch doesn't see it only that way. He notes that ninth-place Greg Biffle is only eight points ahead of him and eighth-place Joey Logano is only 10 points ahead, so he'd like to pass them in the standings rather then simply defend against Gordon.
Gordon, who finished only 16 points behind Busch in the epic battle for the '04 title, knows he'll have his work cut out for him trying catch Busch.
"It's definitely been impressive," Gordon said of Busch's season. "They've had a lot of speed this year. "They've really come together. …and it's been a great story with Kurt with everything he's been through as well to do it with that smaller team.
"I look for them to have a lot of speed Saturday night."
Speed, Busch said, has been key to Furniture Row's surprising surge after a slow start to the season.
"We had our work cut out for us and we unloaded at Texas (in April) and I think that's when we turned the corner," Busch said, noting that the team dropped as low as 29th in the standings the first two months of the season. "That's when we had speed and just a new-found rhythm within the team. "That's when we turned into players for the season."
Busch thinks it will take more than just a fast car Saturday. Among the other keys he listed are protecting the car, restarting well and keeping an eye out so Gordon doesn't sneak in a pit stop out of sequence and gain ground on Busch with a better set of tires.
Busch added that "the time is now or never" for his pit crew, which has "not always been as consistent as it needed to be," to perform at a "Chase level." Gordon said his team's problem has been inconsistent speed, while he feels Busch's has often been inconsistent pit stops.
If the Furniture Row team fails on Saturday, it won't be from a lack of chemistry. Busch is heading back to a big-time Cup team in 2014, agreeing recently to drive at Stewart-Haas, but he said his Furniture Row teammates are handling that just fine.
"There was the disappointment, but there was also, 'Why can't we make the best of these final weeks together and do something very special,'" Busch said. "So our first task was to make the Chase, so here we are.
"I think the way this team has come together stronger and harder knowing that now is the time has worked out to be a (benefit) for (No.) 78."
If he's right, Furniture Row will make history Saturday. Either way, he's enjoying the ride.
"I've been able to take a step back the last 18 months and put fun back into racing," Busch said. "It wasn't necessarily about driving into victory lane to have fun.
"We're on the cusp of doing something very special with a single-car team. Win lose or draw, I think it's been a success."