KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) enters this weekend’s New England 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon ranked 10th in the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings.
The second race of the 10-race playoff that will crown the 2016 champion will be contested at the 1.058-mile oval that helped Busch make his Sprint Cup championship dreams a reality in 2004. Busch hopes history will repeat itself this weekend and that, once again, the “Magic Mile” lives up to its moniker in helping him get one step closer to being crowned the Sprint Cup champion for a second time.
Busch led 155 laps and drove away from Matt Kenseth Sept. 19, 2004 at New Hampshire to win the first race in the first Chase. The historic victory would be the first of six top-five and nine top-10 finishes the Las Vegas native would rack up during that year’s 10-race playoff.
But the Chase format has changed drastically since then. What was then a true, 10-race series that would determine the champion is now a series of three elimination rounds during which the field of 16 drivers is narrowed to 12, then eight, and then to the final four who will compete for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
While a Chase driver cannot be eliminated from contention this weekend at New Hampshire, he can guarantee his championship hopes continue by scoring a win, as race winners from each round automatically advance to the next round. Busch would like nothing more than to pick up his second win of the season this weekend at New Hampshire and head to the final race of the Round of 16 without worry. But, with the rest of the teams advancing by total points accumulated, he knows a strong finish would also go a long way toward ensuring his advancement into the Round of 12.
In 31 Sprint Cup starts at New Hampshire, Busch has three victories – July and September 2004, and June 2008 – seven top-five finishes and 12 top-10s. While the finishes there of late have not shown the success of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation team, performances have been strong. So, as Busch sets his sights on advancing throughout the Chase, he is also looking to rekindle the magic he’s shown at New Hampshire by capturing his fourth career Sprint Cup win there and guaranteeing his advancement into the Round of 12.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Are the challenges at New Hampshire the same as always, or does the track change over the years?
“It seems like it has changed a little bit toward the end of the race with a lot of aggressive restarts. That is when you gain positions, or it’s easy to lose positions. Everybody is out there elbows out, pushing hard, and you hope to not have trouble.”
What do you need your car to do really well at New Hampshire to have a chance to win?
“It’s got to be able to cut in the center of the corner, cut underneath guys, look to get to that bottom lane and drive up off the corner and get side-by-side with guys. That way you have position on corner exit.”
What are the pressures on a crew chief at New Hampshire?
“It seems more about a strategy now and knowing what we did the previous race, what we did the year before and sticking with that sequence based off of what the car’s current handling conditions are. It seems like the tracks and the tires aren’t matching up as well anymore and you’ve just got to stick with your strategy to even it out.”
Is there a role any greater for a spotter than at a track like New Hampshire?
“It’s a short-track atmosphere so the spotters definitely have more responsibility, but it’s not any different than any race weekend. You are there to do well and stay focused. You need every part of your team clicking on all eight cylinders.”
How do you approach this weekend’s race at New Hampshire?
“I feel like it’s a great track that is very comparable to Phoenix, and we get there in the final round, and so you hope that you have a good run at Loudon because that will bridge it to Phoenix. There, you just go to find the right success value. If you have a chance to win, go for it. The main objective there is to gain points.”
It seems like New Hampshire has bitten some of the Chase drivers the past few seasons. Why do you think that is?
“We have a really hard tire there and, when you have a really hard tire, you stretch it on fuel mileage and guys run out of fuel.”
With this being the third year of the Chase with the elimination format, how does the level intensify and how is that different from when it was just the 10 races? Obviously, there’s always a lot of intensity and pressure toward the end. Is it that much different in this format?
“I think, speaking off my experience, the way to define the old Chase was a 10-week plateau of, ‘You’ve got to ramp up when the Chase starts,’ and you’ve got to hold that for 10 weeks. This system, it can go up and down like a heartbeat from Chicago to New Hampshire to Dover and back to Kansas. But if you have a smooth Chase, this one just ramps up at a linear pace. So, the first round, a team like we are – the Monster Energy/Haas Automation team, Stewart-Haas Racing – we’re a power team, we should be able to go out there and do our job as normal the first round and make it to the next round. Then you ramp it up. Then you ramp it up again. Then, at Homestead, you know, you don’t hold back anything.”
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