The road back from his 2004 championship season hasn't been smooth for Kurt Busch, so the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver doesn't want to make too much of his promising start this year.
But if Busch truly is making a comeback in stock car racing's top echelon, it didn't start when the season began two weeks ago at the Daytona 500.
It began toward the end of last season. As others chased the Chase championship, Busch and his Penske Racing team took chances and experimented with the No. 2 Dodge. A second-place finish at Phoenix and a third at Charlotte, N.C., gave them hope that 2009 could be better.
Now Busch is third in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings after finishing 10th at Daytona and fifth at Sunday's Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif.
"When you're not in the Chase running for the championship, you really get to think out of the box," Busch said. "So we compiled all those ideas. Right now, it's too early to talk championship, but we're trying to ... use our decisions from last year to help us.
"Like a car that we had last week, it ran a lot better than what we ran most of last year."
Busch, who attended Durango High School, will compete in Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Though Busch, 30, didn't disappear from the NASCAR scene after reaching its summit while driving a Roush Racing Ford, he hasn't been a viable contender since 2004.
He followed his championship season by finishing 10th with Roush before moving to Penske Racing in 2006, where he began driving Dodges. Busch finished 16th in points that year and seventh in '07 before falling to 18th last year.
Busch's struggles have given him a great appreciation of how difficult it is to win the Cup title, and it has left him even more amazed at the three in a row Jimmie Johnson has captured.
"It seems like every year the competition gets tougher," Busch said. "You have to go out there and be smarter and not stick with your past tendencies. Things change, and that's what makes it so exciting as a driver.
"There's something new that you have to adjust to, and you can't expect to be on top. You have to work hard for it."
The hard work is paying off, but the season is young. Like other teams, Busch and his crew are still trying to figure out where they stand.
The elimination of nearly all preseason track testing has created more of a guessing game than previous seasons, and "the anxiety level is higher than normal," Busch said.
Younger brother, Kyle, hasn't felt as much anxiety. He won eight races last season and finished fifth in points in 2007.
Kyle is 18th in this year's Cup standings and will compete in today's Sam's Town 300 Nationwide race along with Sunday's Cup race. He said he's happy his brother's team is "at least looking like they're getting in the right direction."
Kurt Busch expects to know by about the April 5 Cup race at Fort Worth, Texas, whether the season likely will go in the direction he hopes.
As the calendar turns to March and with the madness that's sure to come, Busch can't complain about his position at this point.
"It helps you going into the summer months when you have things pop up -- a DNF (did not finish), an engine failure, a wreck, pit road incident," Busch said. "The points that you build up as a base, you can give some of those back. I believe that it's always five to seven races in before you can really gauge with an 'up' arrow or 'down' arrow next to it."
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. For more motorsports news, go to lvrj.com/motorsports.