A year ago, Kurt Busch was in the midst of a run that included three wins in the last five races.
The big finish to the 2002 season, including sixth place at Phoenix International Raceway, made Busch a favorite to win this year's Winston Cup championship.
Instead, he is a distant ninth in points with two races to go and has failed to finish eight races this year, tied for the most by any driver in the top 20.
Busch appeared to have the best car on the track Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500, leading a race-high 98 of 312 laps. But an unplanned pit stop for gas cost sent him from the lead to 22nd.
Thanks to a late charge, he finished fourth behind winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman.
"Each week it just seems like we're behind the eight ball and all the bad breaks keep going against us," Busch said. "We felt we had to come in and top off."
He was pleased to come back for a top five finish, though.
"Yeah, it's the same old story; we just can't buy a break," Busch said. "Everything is turning against us, but our results are starting to turn around a little bit.
"This Phoenix mile has been good to me, so it's a good finish and we led some laps."
FINDING THE GROOVE: Newman held off Busch for third place, a big improvement on his first three races here. His best finish at PIR was last year's 18th.
"I've always known what the fast line was," he said. "It was just a matter of communicating with the team and having everything together to get it right.
"We kept tuning on the car and the guys did an awesome job, both on strategy and at the same time tuning the race car to the race track with my feedback."
TRADING PLACES: Crew chiefs Pat Tryson and Ben Leslie will swap places today, with Tryson taking over Mark Martin's No. 6 Roush Racing Ford and Leslie moving to Ricky Rudd's No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford.
Both teams have had disappointing seasons, with Martin 17th in the points and Rudd 21st. Neither has won a race in 2003.
Roush and the Wood Brothers have a working relationship, with Roush providing engines and technical support for the No. 21.
Team owner Jack Roush said one reason for the swap was the expected move by the Wood Brothers from Stuart, Va., to Charlotte, N.C., where most Winston Cup teams are based.
"That will put them a lot closer to our operation so, beginning with that move, we are going to revitalize the No. 21 car by putting Ben with the Wood Brothers and Ricky Rudd. That will allow the No. 21 program to get closer to our operations in Concord (N.C.)."
HE'S BACK: Martin, the winningest driver in Busch Series history, will unretire for three races next season as part of a Roush Racing deal with sponsor Pennzoil.
Martin retired from Busch in 2000 with 45 race wins. He and teammates Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton each will drive three races in cars sponsored by Pennzoil, which will be an associated sponsor on all of Roush's Nextel Cup cars in 2004.
SPARK PLUGS: Earnhardt's best finish in three starts at Phoenix was fifth last year. Earnhardt's win was Chevrolet's third Phoenix victory and was the fifth time in 16 races at PIR a Ford has not won.
_ ASSOCIATED PRESS