KANNAPOLIS, N.C.– Growing up in Las Vegas, Kurt Busch spent the early years of his career competing at tracks along the West Coast.
And when he wasn’t behind the wheel of his racecar, the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) traveled to area tracks to take in races as a spectator. Throughout the 1990s, Busch regularly made the trek to Phoenix International Raceway just to have the chance to watch NASCAR superstars like Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison compete.
Getting the opportunity to race at the mile oval in the desert west of Phoenix – the same track where he had cheered for many of his racing heroes – was a dream come true for Busch. Racing at the track was like a home game for Busch, who also attended college for several semesters at the University of Arizona down the road in Tucson before making it in NASCAR’s big leagues.
While he was coming up through the ranks, Busch made a number of race starts at Phoenix, competing in series such as NASCAR’s Southwest Series tour. Then, in 2000, Busch took to the track for the first time as a competitor in NASCAR’s top touring series, competing in both the Camping World Truck Series race in March, in which he finished fourth, and then in the Sprint Cup race in November later that same season, in which he finished 29th.
Since his first Sprint Cup start at Phoenix, it has been a track where Busch has performed consistently. In 23 starts there, he has secured one win in spring 2005, five top-five finishes and 12 top-10s. He has an average finish of 14.6, which is the third-highest finishing average for Busch of any active track on the Sprint Cup schedule.
While this weekend’s Phoenix 500k Sprint Cup race is the penultimate event of the 2014 season, it’s just the second for Busch with his new crew chief and road crew.
Last weekend’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth was the first for Busch with veteran crew chief Tony Gibson.
Busch qualified fourth for his first outing with Gibson and maintained a spot in the top-10 for most of the 500-mile race. The Haas Automation driver was able to overcome a series of slow stops on pit road in the second half of the race that had put a seemingly sure top-10 finish in doubt. Using some late-race pit strategy, Busch was able to charge from 15th to the lead and appeared to have a shot at the victory before a series of cautions for late-race accidents would greatly alter the desired outcome. Busch finished eighth, earning his 10th top-10 of the season.
For Busch, the first outing with Gibson and his new crew was something to be proud of. Busch & Company showed it could work together well as it battled back for the hard-fought eighth-place finish. Their performance showed signs of promise and exciting things to come in the eyes of Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
This weekend, he hopes to continue building on and improving upon his new relationship with Gibson, who scored his first-ever win as a crew chief at Phoenix with driver Ryan Newman in April 2010. With both driver and crew chief enjoying past success at the mile oval known as the “Diamond in the Desert,” it could be an ideal venue for the two to rise to the next level this weekend.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What are your thoughts about heading to Phoenix?
“It’s a place where I grew up watching Cup races. When I was a kid, they didn’t have Las Vegas Motor Speedway, yet. So we traveled down to Phoenix to watch the big show. The years I went, guys like Terry Labonte, Davey Allison and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., were down there winning. It was so cool. One year, we got pit passes to walk down pit road on Sunday morning at the start of the race. I was in awe that this was the big-time. It’s amazing how it has all turned out. So Phoenix, to me, was the track I grew up watching races on. Then, when I got there as a racer to race in the Southwest Tour, that was basically our Daytona 500. So, when you were racing on the West Coast, Phoenix was our Daytona. That’s how big Phoenix was for us.”
Phoenix is another racetrack, similar to Texas, where you’ve got top-10 finishes in half of your Sprint Cup Series starts, including a win. Why has it been such a good track for you?
“I’ve only got the one win at Phoenix, but it’s a racetrack that I usually qualify well at and lead some laps but struggle to close the door at the end. To be able to close the door at the end, you have to be able to anticipate the shade coming into turns one and two, which makes that end of the racetrack fast, while turns three and four are still in the warm sun, so the racecar will be a little slick down there. Since the repave, I haven’t been able to do the best job of getting the grip out of the racecar that I’ve been looking for. So that’s the objective this time around – to utilize an experience level like Tony Gibson has with that style racetrack, and a fresh outlook. Phoenix has always seemed to fit my driving style with the flat, one-mile track layout and how tight the corners are. I have just always been able to understand that track, the differences with turns one and two versus the differences in turns three and four and what the racecar needs to do to be fast.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine