KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) heads into Sunday’s Can-Am 500k at Phoenix International Raceway ranked eighth in points, the lowest of those still in contention for the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. But while he may be down, he is certainly not out. He’ll look to a familiar source for a little inspiration this weekend as he hopes to see his championship run continue.
Sunday’s 500-kilometer event at Phoenix is the last race before the four drivers who will compete for the 2016 Sprint Cup championship are determined. And, for six drivers, this is their last chance to earn one of the two remaining berths to compete for the title next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Two of the four drivers that will comprise Homestead weekend’s Championship 4 have already been determined. Jimmie Johnson earned his berth two weeks ago by winning at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, while Carl Edwards earned his Sunday night thanks to his victory at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Only race-winning drivers from the Round of 8 have locked themselves into the Championship 4, so the other six drivers including Busch will look to advance via a race win Sunday or by being the among the highest remaining drivers in the point standings.
For Busch, whose fandom of the 2016 World Series-champion Chicago Cubs is well documented, he’ll look to his team’s recent playoff run as a huge source of inspiration. He was just a kid in Las Vegas when he adopted Chicago sports teams as his own, and his love for them hasn’t faded one iota through the years. So, as his own 2016 championship battle has played out, once his on-track obligations were complete, his focus would shift to his beloved baseball team and the eventual end of its 108-year title drought.
The Cubs, in one of the most dramatic World Series games ever played, knocked off the Cleveland Indians by a score of 8-7 in 10 innings of Game 7 of the 112th World Series. With that, the Cubs became the first team since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates to come back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win Games 6 and 7 on the road.
So, Busch knows full well that being down certainly does not mean you’re out. But for his 2016 championship run to continue, he’ll need to rally just as his Cubs did. Currently eighth in points, Busch’s best chance to clinch a Championship 4 berth is with a victory Sunday. He could lock himself in via points, as well, but he would need some serious help. So, Busch and his Tony Gibson-led team will focus on the former instead of the latter, and approach the race with a “win and we’re in” mentality. And, at a race where both Busch and Gibson have scored significant victories, they’d be hard to count out as a threat to do just that.
For Busch, his lone career Phoenix victory came in April 2005. It was his first win that season, and it came in the inaugural Phoenix spring event. In addition to his victory, Busch also owns six top-five finishes and 16 top-10s there. For Gibson, Phoenix was the site of his first win at the helm of a Sprint Cup team. In April 2010, he guided Ryan Newman and the No. 39 team to victory lane for SHR’s first victory at the desert oval.
Knowing a win would guarantee their presence in the Championship 4 next weekend, Busch and the No. 41 team know it will be imperative to put all their energy, focus and determination on doing whatever it takes to put the Monster Energy/Haas Automation Chevrolet in victory lane Sunday.
What do you feel you need to work on at Phoenix to continue the success you’ve had there?
“It seems like, each time we go back to Phoenix, the asphalt is getting a little bit older. It’s starting to get a little bit slicker, yet it still seems like you can stay out forever on tires. You are out there a long time on tires and the air pressures build up. We are going to work this time around on keeping the air pressure down and trying to make our long-run speed better.”
What makes Phoenix such a unique racetrack?
“It’s got a great atmosphere there with turns one and two being much tighter than turns three and four. They reconfigured the dogleg on the back straightaway, which is a huge corner now. It opens up the ability to go way below the yellow line. Sometimes you see cars five-wide on the back straightaway. That is definitely a wild card in the mix there.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine