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Kurt Busch moving on up

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By Ngozi Ekeledo

DOVER, Del. ( David Newton / ESPN.com ) -- Sprint Cup drivers typically get buried in a sea of cameras and reporters during a weekend behind-the-hauler interview. It sometimes can be awkward and extremely uncomfortable for all parties, particularly on hot, muggy days such as they're having at Dover International Speedway.

So Furniture Row Racing came up with a wrap-around podium complete with a microphone stand for driver Kurt Busch.

"Keeps me away from the riffraff," the 2004 Cup champion deadpanned from behind his barrier Friday.

Busch 1.

Media 0.

While we're keeping score, Busch was right when he said from Dover in September that his move from the single-car team of Phoenix Racing to the single-car team of Furniture Row was not a lateral move, even though some argued it was.

He has done an excellent job of making that clear recently. In the past two points races, at Darlington and Charlotte -- as well as the All-Star Race -- Busch has a series-best average start of 1.6.

In those same events, his average finish was 7.3, which would rank third behind Sunday's pole sitter, Denny Hamlin (4.0), and last week's winner, Kevin Harvick (5.6).

Need more? In the past four points races, Busch has had a driver rating of 97.4 or better. The only other driver to do that has been Matt Kenseth.

Busch has been so strong that, after his second-place qualifying effort for the Coca-Cola 600, there was this tweet from reigning champion Brad Keselowski: "Kurt Busch = most talented driver in NASCAR."

Bold, considering those are words usually reserved for younger brother Kyle Busch.

Keselowski might be right, though.

So if you're looking for a driver to keep points leader Jimmie Johnson from a record eighth Dover win Sunday or for a driver outside the major teams to get to Victory Lane, Kurt could be your guy.

"They are crushing it," Johnson said of Furniture Row. "They've been, on raw speed, the fastest car, if not one of the three fastest cars for weeks now. And then in the race, they're still holding on and performing very, very well."

Busch is the reason. Although Furniture Row has poured resources into areas across the organization to improve performance, the driver is the one getting the results -- sometimes despite the organization.

A week ago, Busch led the 600 when the race was red-flagged with 72 laps remaining. When it resumed, the car wouldn't restart -- a cable plug issue that Busch called a one-in-a-million failure.

He fell to 14th.

Day over?

Hardly.

Busch drove back to a third-place finish that, in many ways, was more impressive than Harvick's victory. He did it for the same reason Keselowski, his former teammate at Penske Racing, lavished accolades about him on Twitter.

For the same reason Keselowski said Kurt was more talented than Kyle, also a major threat at Dover.

"Yeah," Keselowski said. "There are things I see him do that others don't do. He can single-handedly go to Sonoma and beat everyone with an inferior car. He is that good. He is on another level than everyone else at those places."

When Busch has solid equipment, as he does now, he can be on another level at any track. This isn't to suggest Furniture Row is on par with Joe Gibbs Racing, a team that took three of the first four spots for Sunday's race and has won five times this season.

It isn't to suggest that the Denver-based organization is close to the level of Hendrick Motorsports, which has three drivers -- Johnson (1), Kasey Kahne (5) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6) -- among the top six in the standings.

It's not to suggest Busch is a better driver than JJ and Kyle, either. Keselowski said he was the most talented, not the best, in the sense that Michael Vick is the most talented quarterback in the NFL but not the best.

But for the past three weeks, Busch and Furniture Row have made the big boys take note of them as Chase contenders. That hasn't changed at Dover, where Busch was fastest in Saturday's final practice.

"His talent is as good as anyone's, for sure," said Hamlin, attempting to rally into wild-card contention after missing four races with a back injury. "He's really taken that team to another level, and the team has gotten better, as well.

"I know he's one of those in-between guys that could hurt us."

Busch, who will start 13th, could hurt a lot of potential wild-card teams that didn't count on Furniture Row being a playoff contender. He is 18th in points, only 31 behind Keselowski for 10th, a position guaranteed a spot in the Chase.

He has an edge on many of those around him in that he knows he can win anywhere, including Dover, where he won in 2011 with Penske Racing.

"People in the garage know what a quality driver he is," Harvick said.

It goes beyond that for Harvick and RCR. Busch is a part of why that organization, which supplies engines and data to Furniture Row, is on the rise.

"Listening to Kurt Busch in the meetings is something that adds to our team," said Harvick, who has won two of the past four races. "Not taking anything away from … all the guys working on the car. But the way that Kurt drives hard, he has good feedback.

"To me, that's been the thing that really has helped the 78 car become relevant for RCR and myself, is you can go over and talk to him and look at his data, and it's real and it's fast."

Busch tried to tell us in September that that was a major difference between Furniture Row and Phoenix Racing, which gets engines and chassis from HMS but not all the data.

Many of us were skeptical, not foreseeing the sharing of information going this deep because it wasn't that way with Phoenix Racing and HMS.

"We knew Kurt wasn't going to be in the No. 51 for long, and he is a very smart driver and a very good driver," Johnson said. "We're all pretty careful with what we discussed and talked about.

"But regardless of who it is, when you can really count on someone to tell you the truth, and what they're feeling in the car, and you get a few months of that interaction, you can build on it."

Busch is building something at Furniture Row that might keep him there beyond this season.

Winning is the next step.

"Just those last 50 laps," said Busch, who won two of the four segments in the All-Star Race but finished fifth in the final because of a slow pit stop.

The good news for Busch is people are talking about his potential to win instead of the meltdowns that have overshadowed much of his career. The better news for Busch is his total focus is on performance.

"I'm glad that we're having success right now, but we have to stay on top of finding the setups that are going to help us make the Chase," he said. "That's what we have to do at the end of the day."

At the end of the day, one could argue Busch is driving better now than he did when he won the title at Roush Fenway Racing.

"Don't put the cart before the horse, guys," he said. "We've just run good a couple weeks, and we still have a long way to go."

But Furniture Row has come a long way.

Separated itself from the riffraff, so to speak.

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