Kurt Busch claimed his and Stewart-Haas Racing’s maiden victory at the Daytona 500 in 2017, adding another title to a glittering NASCAR career. Writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid, Lee Spencer sat down with the now veteran racer as he embarks on his quest to do what no driver has done since Sterling Marlin: go back-to-back at the Great American Race.
Kurt Busch was fresh out of the drivers meeting for the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway, and already the wheels were turning… figuratively speaking.
On the golf cart ride back to his motor home, he was absorbing the protocols outlined in the briefing, thinking out loud as to how the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team could use the information to gain an edge – even though the race was still five hours away.
Busch realises that time is running out. Not just before his next event, but on his NASCAR career as a whole.
The game has changed dramatically since the brash 20-year-old driver from Las Vegas was discovered through the Roush Racing Gong Show in 1999 and found his way to stock car racing’s elite series less than two years later. Instead of just one, maybe two 20-somethings working their way into NASCAR’s top tour, the Monster Energy Cup series is flush with young talent.
Inside his well-appointed R.V., dotted with mementos of his wife Ashley, Busch brewed a cup of coffee, then slid into the dining nook with the mug and began drawing a figure resembling two tent poles.
“This is how I visually have seen my career,” Busch said. “It’s like the Golden Gate Bridge. The build-up – the nice championship. The build-up – winning Daytona. There could be another stretch over here, but that will probably be life afterwards.
“That moment, winning Daytona, reminded me of winning the championship. When I won the first championship – my only championship – I thought there would be more. I thought there would be more opportunities. I didn’t quite cherish it the way I should have. Or I was just 26 years old and I didn’t digest it as much.”
That wasn’t the case after Busch, 39, won the Great American Race last year on his 16th attempt. He refused to let the Harley J. Earl trophy out of his sight.
“To win Daytona, after so many years of struggling, and so many close finishes, too, I mean second-place is great but it’s devastating when you’re that close,” Busch said. “Then there were the years I had a really fast car and wrecked. That’s the emotion of Daytona. It’s just like winning the championship after these 10 days, except for the championship is a 10-week run.”
Certainly, Busch’s body of work – with both a Cup title and 29 wins including a Daytona 500 victory – would make him a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But that’s not what is foremost on the his mind. There’s still plenty he wants to accomplish before hanging up his helmet.
“What I’m really focussed on is, I’ve been close at Darlington, and that one has slipped away a couple of times,” Busch said. “The worst track for me on the circuit is Indianapolis. I cannot get my car right for that track. That’s why I ended up going and doing IndyCar, just to double check. And that was quite the adventure as well.
“It’s neat to have the big wins. It’s neat to be a consistent driver in this series. That’s something I’ve always tried to pride myself in is those top 10 finishes – that my fans can come to the track and expect a good finish for the day, whether it’s New England, the Desert Southwest, any track. When you’re doing that, that means you’re adapting to everything the sport is throwing at you – changes of rules, the tires, aero, tracks and when they’re getting repaved or older. That’s always been my pride, is to be consistent.”
Over the last 18 seasons in Cup, Busch has finished in the top 10 in 42-percent of his races. He credits his father, Tom Busch, with exposing him and his brother Kyle to a variety of racing disciplines early in their careers. That has helped them adapt quickly to whatever challenge each race might present.
Even after Busch rose to the pinnacle of NASCAR, he continued to search for new horizons – IndyCar, NHRA and Race of Champions – to test his skills. The common denominator, Busch says: “It’s a race car and four tyres.”
“It’s the foundation that my dad instilled in me as a racer to work on the car and understand the car and apply the racing techniques that he would teach me, whether it was a dirt track or an oval. The first time I was on a road course, it was in a Legends car with him, and he was teaching me different braking points and things. That versatility came from my father.
“If you talked to all the Vegas fans that watched my dad race, or watched me race, or Kyle race at the Bullring in Vegas, on any given night there would be three trophy dashes that we’d be jumping in and out of. My modified would be one. The hobby stock would be another, or the Southwest Tour car, or the American race truck series, a Legends or dwarf car. We were there to race all the time and we would race three divisions every night. That DNA of driving is what has helped me adapt over the years. There are always those fundamental things that my dad taught me that I think helps me.”
Although Busch’s new deal with Stewart-Haas Racing wasn’t completed until mid-December, he’s relieved to return to the No. 41 team. For the first time since 2014, Busch won’t have veteran crew chief Tony Gibson calling the shots. Billy Scott, 40, is taking over the leadership role on the team. While Busch generally enjoys an old-school style of crew chief, Scott’s method marries both a solid engineering background with a traditional racer’s philosophy.
“I like Billy,” Busch said. “We’ve hit it off really well, whether we’re just talking or sending each other texts. We’ve gone to lunch together. We went out to dinner last night. He’s 24/7 racing. Thinking about it all the time. With the crew chief position in this day and age, they’re more of a people manager and have to control all the different departments. When I first came into the sport, crew chiefs worked on the cars – kind of like the car chief position – then they would finesse the cars through technical inspection.
“You don’t see that now with the LIS (Laser Inspection Station) and the Hawk-Eye System. You need a good communicator and a good cheerleader in that crew chief position nowadays, and someone that can read the simulation mapping and how the cars are being set up via computer. Billy has it all. He has good years of experience in the Cup garage. So, it all made sense.”
While some veterans have questioned the exposure the next generation has received, before they have built the resumes to justify the attention, Busch is using his expertise in motorsport to design his next career move. Recently, he appeared as a guest commentator on a Supercross broadcast in Phoenix, then flew to Aspen for the X Games. Last year, Busch worked with Discovery Channel and Richard Rawlings for the season finale of Fast N’ Loud.
“I’m a car guy,” Busch said. “So, anything I can do with cars and television, whether it’s live TV and commentating about racing, whether it’s a show that builds a car and shows people, ‘Wow, it’s that easy to get a crate motor from Ford and plug it into my old school Mustang’, we built that Pantera with Gas Monkey Garage.
“I’m just having fun with the TV side of it because I feel there’s just so much more that can be exposed from the motorsports world to the general fans. Cars are cool. Cars are part of our heritage and we still need to encourage our youth that they can build anything they want. I’m just trying to keep that creative ingenuity alive. I’m not sure what direction that will go with whatever TV situation, but heck, I feel like I have a PhD in TV after being in the NASCAR garage for 18 years. I think that’s what’s made me comfortable in front of the lens.”
But that’s the future. For now, Busch’s immediate concern is going back-to-back in the Daytona 500 for the first time since Sterling Marlin accomplished the feat in 1994-1995.