An Education in Qualifying
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), will be channeling his inner University of Arizona Wildcat as he attempts to “Bear Down” and conquer the new Sprint Cup knockout qualifying format. This will be Busch’s first challenge as the series heads to Phoenix International Raceway for the second race of the 2014 season.
Starting this weekend in Phoenix, NASCAR will move away from single-lap qualifying to a new knockout qualifying format. At tracks measuring less than 1.25 miles, qualifying for the Pole Award will consist of two rounds. The first qualifying elimination round will be 30 minutes in duration and include all cars. The 12 cars that post the fastest single lap time from the first qualifying round will advance to the second and final round. The remaining cars will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round in descending order. There will be a 10-minute break between the two rounds. Then the second and final qualifying round will be 10 minutes in duration and the fastest single lap time posted will determine the Pole Award winner through 12th position in descending order.
Under the previous single-car qualifying format, Busch had a history of strong performances at Phoenix. He qualified on the front row three times, the top-five six times and the top-10 in 13 of his 22 starts. Not only has Busch capitalized on his qualifying efforts but he also turned them into quality finishes. In the nine races Busch started in the top-five at Phoenix, he has one win, three top-five finishes and has never finished outside of the top-10.
In 2005, Busch qualified second to pole-winner Jeff Gordon in the first spring race and first night race ever held at Phoenix. He went on to lead 219 laps en route to his only win at the mile oval. The race marked the first time a driver recorded a perfect 150.0 driver rating at Phoenix. Busch’s SHR teammate Kevin Harvick is the only other driver to score a perfect 150.0 driver rating at Phoenix, having achieved it during the November 2006 race.
Busch appeared on the front row for the second time at Phoenix in November 2009, when he qualified second to Martin Truex Jr. He scored his second top-10 from the front row, leading 69 laps and finishing sixth.
His most recent front-row appearance at Phoenix came in February 2011, when he started second to pole-winner Carl Edwards. Busch led 31 laps and finished eighth.
Busch, a former College of Pharmacy degree candidate at the University of Arizona in nearby Tucson, is looking forward to returning to his school’s home state as he aspires to earn Haas Automation its first Sprint Cup victory in the series. Haas Automation has served as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series for 11 different drivers and 110 races since 2002. When Busch takes the green flag in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500k, he will also be attempting to make his first visit to victory lane since his last Sprint Cup win in October 2011 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.
Haas Automation, the largest CNC machine tool builder in the Western World, is owned by SHR founder and co-owner Gene Haas.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 HAAS Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What do you think will be the biggest key to the new qualifying format?
“Tire management will be key. A set of sticker tires versus scuffs can be three-tenths (of a second). Three-tenths on the stopwatch in normal qualifying is first to 25th. So it’ll be interesting to see how that is balanced out. You can’t cool the cars down during qualifying runs, so we’ll have to let the rough edges drag in the beginning of qualifying sessions to see what patterns develop. But, at places like Phoenix, the tires don’t drop off very quickly. Vegas, they’re OK, but Fontana, you’re going to get that one good lap and then you’re going to wish you had stickers on, and that’s when it’s going to be very difficult to control a car at qualifying speeds with old tires. So, at tracks that are abrasive on the tires, that’s when you’re going to see a big discrepancy in qualifying results.”
How would qualifying differ on a short track?
“Short tracks, the tire dropoff isn’t as great. At the mile‑and‑a‑halves, the tire dropoff is tremendous, so you’re going to have one shot at a fast lap. But you’ve now got older tires to post your lap in the top-12 once those final 12 are locked in, so that’ll be interesting to see how the good guys who are in that final 12 balance out qualifying.”
Do you think the new qualifying format is good for both the fans and the driver?
“It’ll be interesting how at some tracks the Goodyear tire will duplicate the lap time you run on stickers and scuffs. Then there are tracks like California Speedway, where you have a sticker run and then you go right back out on scuff tires and you’ll be six-tenths slower. It’ll be very interesting how it shakes out. I think you’re going to see large discrepancies at the big tracks and then smaller intervals of time at the short tracks, stickers versus scuffs. That was my number-one question to John Darby – do we get a fresh set of tires if we’re in that final 12. I think we should, but right now they’re trying to keep the costs down and keep excitement up. If we’re going out there in qualifying mode with older tires, that puts us more on edge and in more of a riskier situation for things to happen. Are we at risk? No, I can’t say that. We have safer cars in safer situations, but you’re at risk for spinning out and something to go wrong, and that’s what keeps it fun and exciting.”
Is the new qualifying similar to heat races?
“The way I’m viewing it, it’s very, very similar to Formula 1, and you have your knockout sessions where the faster groups transfer and then you get to that elite group. And, to me, you’ve just got to play it straightforward, whatever the game plan is going in, you keep it clear and crisp, and you’re not out there to play any monkey business with the other cars.”
What’s more important to you, speed or consistency?
“Well, I think consistency is how I go to bed at night happy. And that’s when there’s less friction within an organization, knowing that you have that consistency week-in and week-out. And then you just have to find that one little thing each week that will give you that speed to win.”
What was the hardest part about going to college and racing?
“The best story I have is, when I was leaving my dorm on a Friday after classes, my resident assistant is standing there with his arms folded a few times saying, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Well I’m headed to Phoenix this weekend,’ because I went to school in Tucson, or I said, ‘Hey I’m going to L.A. because the Southwest Tour is racing at Orange Show Speedway. He goes, ‘When are you going to give up on this racing thing and worry about your school work?’ He is a junior in college and he is trying to be a guidance and a mentor counselor and, literally, the books were on the back seat of my car as I was heading down the freeway chasing down my dream of racing cars. It’s hard to balance both. You have to stay involved in motorsports. You are always looking for that opportunity to break through. What ends up being sacrificed is the study time.”
Do you ever plan to go back and finish your college degree?
“Probably not. There are so many things that you learn in life afterward. The school of hard knocks happens out on the road and in life. I’m not the one for the books, in a sense. I mean, I got good grades in high school, but I felt like I learned more in life when I was outside of school.”
How many semesters did you complete?
“I did about five semesters total. Some at UNLV (University of Nevada, Las Vegas), some at the community college back in Vegas. Three semesters at University of Arizona.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine