By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
At the start of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, few prognosticators, if any, had Kurt Busch's name penciled in as a possible qualifier for the Chase.
In fact, when Busch announced his move to Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing last year, many described the transition derisively as a "parallel move" from James Finch's Phoenix Racing, a dedicated team that simply didn't have the resources to make a run at the Chase.
In Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Busch proved the doubters wrong. Having qualified second to Jeff Gordon in Friday's time trials, Busch maintained a presence in to top six for the entire race, led 73 laps and ultimately finished second to Carl Edwards.
That performance left him eighth in the Cup standings and comfortably in the Chase. For the first time, a single-car team, albeit one with a strong affiliation to Richard Childress Racing, had qualified for the Chase. For the first time, a team based outside North Carolina had made NASCAR's 10-race playoff.
It wasn't a first for Busch, of course. The 35-year-old driver was the winner of the inaugural Chase in 2004. All told, Busch had made the Chase six times before Saturday night, but the accomplishment at Richmond clearly was special.
Not only had Busch completed the resurrection of a career he had all but destroyed with reckless emotional outbursts off the track, but he also had helped elevate the status of Furniture Row Racing from also-ran to contender. To that point, in less than one full season with the team, Busch has accounted for 16 of the 24 top-10 finishes Furniture Row has achieved since its first foray into Cup racing.
Make no mistake. Busch alone wasn't responsible for the transformation. Team owner Barney Visser, general manager Joe Garone and crew chief Todd Berrier all were part of the critical mass the team achieved this year, and Busch acknowledged that after the race.
"The way this team has grown, what we've been able to accomplish, it's an amazing feeling," Busch said. "We achieved something very special tonight. Barney Visser and his dream of a NASCAR Sprint Cup team, to be a competitive team, he deserves all the credit.
"Joe Garone, the general manager, all the people that he's aligned to help build this team. Then there's guys like Todd Berrier that are veterans of the garage that make big differences in small places like this. Everybody at the Furniture Row shop back in Colorado -- it was a dream. Now it's a reality.
"It's an amazing feeling to sit here at Richmond after such a long journey for myself, but to be able to deliver, to do my part along with these guys. I can't thank them enough."
The quest for the Chase came from the top down. When Visser hired Busch to drive his car, he also raised his sights where performance was concerned. At the start of the season, Visser communicated his expectations to the team.
"I have to go back and say at the beginning of the year, as the team has grown, you start setting goals, again coming to Barney, after Kurt coming onboard, being able to bring Todd Berrier, some of the guys we've had come onboard at the shop, Barney making the comments, 'I expect to make the Chase,' " Garone said.
"When you're out in Colorado, and you've gone through what we've gone through, you realize just how difficult of an accomplishment that is, to have a leader that's got that kind of vision. We all just fell in right behind him.
"I don't know that we had that vision. Maybe Kurt did with his experience, but we all filed in right behind Barney and his lead there. The dream comes true today."
After the 10 Chase races, Busch will move on. He has already signed a contract to drive a fourth car for Stewart-Haas Racing next year. But he still has work to do at Furniture Row.
"It's something special we achieved tonight, to put a single car into the Chase," he said. "We have our friends, other drivers. But yet it's every man for themselves out there. We have some muscle left in us. We have a great 10 weeks ahead of us. We have a test session we've saved.
"I think we can make a run through this Chase. We just have to do the same thing we did tonight: keep plugging away, let everybody else worry about what has to happen, and we'll keep doing what we're doing out in Colorado because nobody can look over our shoulder."