BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Less than a decade removed from a championship in NASCAR's top series, Kurt Busch is an underdog now.
It's a role he seems plenty comfortable with.
There are three races remaining in the regular season, and Busch is ninth in the points standings, meaning he has a decent shot at a surprising berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That's quite a step for the 35-year-old driver — whose career looked anything but stable as recently as last year.
"Furniture Row team is acting like a big-time player right now," Busch said after finishing third at Michigan on Sunday. "We have a little bit of weaknesses here and there, but overall we keep posting good results, and it's very satisfying."
He'll have to make his run at making the Chase while apparently contemplating his future.
Busch has reportedly been offered a deal to drive a fourth car next season for Stewart-Haas Racing, and is mulling that offer and others. The deal, first reported late Sunday night by FoxSports.com, has not been specifically addressed by either the driver or Stewart-Haas Racing.
"Stewart-Haas Racing constantly strives to improve itself, and expansion is something that is often discussed," team spokesman Mike Arning said in a statement. "If the right opportunity presents itself, it's something the team will certainly consider."
Team co-owner Tony Stewart said last month the organization was not ready to expand to four cars in releasing Ryan Newman.
Furniture Row Racing is Busch's third team in three seasons, a single-car operation based in Denver that is hardly a NASCAR superpower. His trouble-filled stint with Phoenix Racing in 2012 was a far cry from the days when he drove for the likes of Jack Roush and Roger Penske.
Busch landed with Phoenix Racing in December 2011 after parting ways from Penske Racing because of a series of incidents mainly related to Busch's temper. He hoped to rebuild his image in 2012, but he was put on probation from an incident at Darlington in May — he was also fined $50,000 for reckless driving on pit road — and he was later suspended a week for verbally abusing a media member.
Busch eventually joined Furniture Row to drive the No. 78 Chevrolet, and now the 2004 Cup champion has been quietly re-positioning himself among NASCAR's elite. His race at Michigan on Sunday was his sixth top-five finish of the season, and he accomplished it without much drama or fanfare.
His performance so far this year speaks for itself, and Busch is trying to stay even keeled.
"Well, it's being focused. I'm excited that we're running well. We're able to seal the deal, when that had been some of our struggles through the midpoint of the season," he said. "Now I'm just in that Chase mode where we have to get in. You can't celebrate with a third-place finish. You just have to feel confident and to know that you can go back next week and do it again."
There's no margin for error. Busch is in ninth place, and a top-10 finish would put him in the Chase — but he's only six points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne. If Busch falls out of the top 10, he'd be in trouble in the race for a wild card because he has no victories this year.
As strong as he's been lately, he knows one bad day could undo much of what he's accomplished.
"The biggest thing is just staying out of trouble," Busch said. "There's still just three weeks to go where we could get in a little fender bender, some itty-bitty thing happen the next three weeks and that will put us on the outside."
That calm, cautious optimism is impressive coming from Busch, whose propensity for wrecking cars has been well documented. He's in a position to make the Chase because of a steady, unspectacular consistency. Busch has finished in the top 14 in 11 of his last 13 races.
Busch was asked at Michigan what his future holds with Furniture Row, particularly with Juan Pablo Montoya's release from Chip Ganassi Racing.
"It's cool to have talks with Furniture Row about what we can do in 2014 and beyond," he said early in the weekend. "The Ganassi thing came up and other phone calls have happened. Nothing's going to change. We're just still really focused on the Chase and what we can do in these next four weeks together."
For now, Busch and Furniture Row are making the most of their partnership. The last three races before the Chase are at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, and Busch already has top-10 finishes at Bristol and Richmond this season.
"We're 23 races in, got three to go to get in the Chase," he said Sunday. "It's an amazing feeling to be in position right now, have a group of guys from Denver, Colorado, in the Chase right now. That's what we have to do, make sure when the door closes, the music stops, that we got a place."