Kurt Busch celebrating his closest finish at Darlington with throwback to 2003

(Allie Davison | NASCAR Digital Media)

Maybe it took that victory lane celebration two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway to remind fans and competitors that Kurt Busch is a player in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship run.

It was the first win for Busch, 39, since the 2017 Daytona 500, but it capped off a summer run where the former Cup champion has earned six consecutive top-10 finishes and moved up from seventh in the championship standings to fourth; with two regular season races remaining before the playoff push. He has 15 top-10s on the year – half of them in the last two months.

Maybe because of his recent strength on-track, Busch arrived at Darlington Raceway for Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) feeling good, but not fully satisfied.

“We’re not here to win one, we’re here to win a bunch and it’s not a relief to win one,’’ said Busch, the 2004 Cup champion. “You want to win seven, eight – those guys are strong right now that are up in the top three and for us we’ve been very consistent this year.

“Bristol was a perfect race where pit stops were solid, restarts – eight out of 10 of them went our way and luck was on our side, and if we continue to do that, to be in position to win, you have to have good pit stops and good restarts with fast cars, so we just want to continue to build on it.

“It’s not a relief at all.  We just want to keep going on the 41 group, so Billy Scott, my crew chief, it was his first win and that’s special.  It proves to him and all of his new guys, all the guys on this 41 car to get that first win, that puts that stamp on it and now they want to go and get more.  I like the way that our win happened and when it happened this season.”

With the victory, Busch becomes the third driver on the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team to formalize his Playoff position. Teammate Kevin Harvick leads the series with seven wins and teammate, two-time season winner, Clint Bowyer is one of only four drivers with multiple wins as well.

The newest member of SHR, Aric Almirola has come close to victory this season and will also be Playoff bound – potentially securing his qualification on points as early as this weekend’s race. It would make SHR the largest multi-car team to sweep playoff positions – a first for the team. Penske Racing has secured berths for all three of its cars as well.

“For us on the 41 car, we had such a big point cushion that we were virtually locked into the Playoffs, we just had to have – only two or three races left of getting that certification of being locked in,’’ Busch said of his win.

“Almirola’s cushion is plus-100 very easily and that’s a two-race cushion, so there’s not a lot of stress at Stewart-Haas.

“There’s almost more of a celebration of our 10-year history at Stewart-Haas and the four cars are most likely going to make the Playoffs.  I think there’s even a team photo scheduled next week with all the crew, all the haulers, all the cars, all the drivers and it’s a big moment because right now Stewart-Haas is definitely one of the hottest teams out there and to be doing it in the 10th season, it’s kind of a cool situation.”

Busch has particular – and dramatic – reason to keep the focus forward. His true photo finish runner-up to Ricky Craven at Darlington in 2003 – he was second by 0.002-seconds – is still one of the most remarkable and talked-about finishes in NASCAR history. And the SHR team is honoring the feat with a throwback paint scheme to that day.

That was the year before Busch went on to win a Cup championship – all in the midst of a 10-season winning streak; a streak he has added to, winning a race in each of the last five years.

The “throwback” theme is all positive for the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Haas Automation Ford.

“We’re in a perfect spot and it’s fun to come to Darlington and celebrate throwback weekend,’’ Busch said. “For us on the 41 car, we have a perfect sign of age.  For me, I get to have my own throwback, it’s 2003 of that closest finish paint scheme, where I finished second to Ricky Craven.

“I’ve got some t-shirts to throw out tomorrow night at the big fan event and it’s a fun weekend to celebrate the past of our sport, the heritage.”

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