A year before he made his first start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Dover International Speedway in the fall of 2000, Kurt Busch was competing in what was then known as the Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring.
On the same June weekend in 1999 that NASCAR’s premier series was visiting Sonoma Raceway in California, the 20-year-old driver from Las Vegas, Nev., drove to Victory Lane at the Northern California road course in the Featherlite Southwest Series race that preceded the main event. Busch eventually went on to capture the series title that season.
Fourteen years and one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship later, he credits his win at Sonoma with putting him on the map.
“I think a lot of Cup teams were interested to see how the race was going to play out and they watched the Southwest Tour race with more strategic thought that year,” Busch said. “After winning the race it seemed like things moved a lot easier in my racing career and I have the Sonoma track to thank for that.”
This weekend when the NASCAR caravan arrives in Sonoma for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT), he will be looking to channel the same magic he had 14 years ago. The race will also be the first road-course test for the new Gen-6 car.
Heading into the 16th race of season, 11 races before the cutoff for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Busch sits 20th, after a 35th-place finish at Michigan dropped him five positions in the standings. He is currently 154 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
“We threw away a bunch of points in Michigan last week after having a really fast race car,” Busch said. “We need to rebound and get some of those points back.”
While Busch hasn’t yet found Victory Lane in 2013, he’s had some strong finishes mixed with some not-so-strong performances. He has three top-five and five top-10 finishes. His best finish this season was a third in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
However, he’s only finished on the lead lap in eight races and accidents have led to DNFs in two races (Martinsville, Talladega). If he’s going to make the Chase for the seventh time in his career, he needs to put together a string of solid performances, including a win or two.
In 2004, Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in the Chase’s inaugural year, but hasn’t finished higher than fourth (2009) in the final standings since. A win Sunday could put him on track for a berth in the Chase and perhaps a run at the championship.
Regardless of where Busch finishes the season in the rankings, it will most likely be the highest finish by a Furniture Row Racing driver, which would be a major stepping stone for the single-car team that continues to make strides.
In 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, Busch has one win, five top fives and one pole. He has been running at the finish of all 12 races and has finished off the lead lap only twice.
Two years ago, he led 76 of the 110 laps in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 to beat Jeff Gordon to the checkers by 2.685 seconds. On the 88th lap, Busch passed Regan Smith and stayed out front for the final 23 circuits around the road course.
In 2005 and 2012, Busch finished third. His other two top fives are a fourth-place finish in 2002 and a fifth-place finish in 2006.
Over the past eight races at Sonoma, he ranks among the top five in most loop data categories: average driver rating (first — 107.8), laps led (first — 108), average running position (first — 9.2), laps in top 15 (second — 705), speed in traffic (second — 88.673 mph), fastest restarts (second — 87.443 mph), average starting position (third — 9.1), green-flag speed (third — 89.684 mph), fastest late in a run (third — 89.296 mph) and fastest early in a run (fifth — 90.068 mph).
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES THIS WEEKEND
Next Race: Toyota-Save Mart 350
The Place: Sonoma Raceway
The Date: Sunday, June 23
The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)
TV: TNT, 2 p.m. (ET)
Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 350 Kilometers (110 laps)