KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kurt Busch has one win, three top-five finishes and 131 points in his last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits to the road course at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. It’s more points than any other driver has scored there the past three seasons, and the win and three top-fives tie him for most in those categories during that time. The interesting part is that Busch’s success has come with three different teams – Team Penske, Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing.
As the Sprint Cup Series heads back to Sonoma for Sunday’s SaveMart 350k, Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion and driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), would like to make it four top-fives with four teams in four years, especially if that top-five was to come in the form of a second win.
Busch dominated the 2011 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma when he led 76 laps of 110 laps and crossed the finish line 2.685 seconds ahead of runner-up Jeff Gordon to score the win for Team Penske.
In 2012, Busch finished third to score his only top-five of the season for underdog team Phoenix Racing. He battled with eventual race-winner Clint Bowyer and second-place finisher Tony Stewart in the closing laps. He looked to be in position to score an unlikely win until contact with a tire barrier caused suspension damage to the front of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
Busch drove the No. 78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet to his third consecutive top-five finish at Sonoma last June, when he led 15 laps en route to a fourth-place finish behind race-winner Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.
All things considered the past three seasons, perhaps most important for Busch when it comes to Sonoma Raceway is that the legendary road circuit served as a springboard to a full-time NASCAR ride early in his career.
In June 1999, Busch, then a 20-year-old virtually unknown driver from Las Vegas, drove to victory lane in the Featherlite Southwest Series race that preceded the Sprint Cup Series main event. Busch eventually went on to capture the series title that season, which helped him open doors that led to a full-time NASCAR ride.
This weekend, Busch is hoping to add to his already impressive Sonoma resume. He would love to score his second win of the season in this weekend’s 110-lap event.
Busch knows the No. 41 team’s win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in March virtually guarantees a spot in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Adding a second win would cement the team’s place in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson is the only driver with three wins, while SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, Team Penske driver Joey Logano and Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., each have two wins this season. Busch is one of six single-race winners as the series heads to race 16 of 36.
In 13 career starts at Sonoma, Busch has the one win and one pole, as well as six top-five finishes and six top-10s with an average start of 10th and an average finish of 16th. He also has led 54 laps.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
What is the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about racing at Sonoma?
“Sonoma has always been a sentimental favorite to me – I think that track helped put me on the map when I won there in a Southwest Tour race in 1999. The garage area sometimes grumbles when we go to road courses. I think that mentality has changed. Everybody has to accept that road courses are part of the NASCAR culture. There are the few who still think Sonoma is a tough track and they don’t find it quite as appealing as Watkins Glen. For me, I grew up racing there, so it’s easy for me to see it as part of the NASCAR culture.”
What can you tell me about your first race at Sonoma?
“My first ever race there was in 1998 in a Southwest Tour car. I finished third, but that day is one of my funniest early stories. I missed the driver meeting in Southwest Tour, which is a huge no-no. So I sat by the car for the next two hours to make sure that I wasn’t late to start the engine. I was funny – the team missed cleaning the windshield during one of the pit stops and they blamed me for missing the driver meeting. So, I followed people who were leaking oil all day long. By the end of the race, I thought I was racing out the side of the window and probably looked like Ace Ventura.”
How did you learn to drive on a road course?
“It might sound odd, but I learned to road-course race by driving a Legends car. That was big in the mid-’90s in the Desert Southwest and they would let us run on the infield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as well as the exterior road course there. We also raced road-course races at Buttonwillow and they had a street-course race at Los Angeles and they raced up in Sonoma. I was just kind of thrown into the fire with road-course racing, but I loved it from the first time I jumped on track.”
What do you like about road-course racing?
“I just like the rhythm. I like how you use one corner to help you in the next corner. You have to be thinking three corners ahead, sometimes. Plus, it’s a compromise on the setup. You’re never going to be perfect on all the corners, so you have to shoot for the middle in all of them.”
In the last three races at Sonoma, what do you remember the most?
“The win was the most memorable – to finally win at Sonoma after having good cars there over the years. But, each one of them the last three years, I’ve been in contention to win. It came down to solid pit execution on all our stops and having the right balance in our setup that I’ve been able to use in the last three years. Will it work again with the new ride-height rule? That’s what I have to find is that unique balance to make the car not wear out the rear tires. That’s always been the most important thing. I was able to preserve my rear tires to finish in the top-five the last three years.”
What do you think will make the new ride-height rule tricky?
“We just have to watch out for the curbing. Is that car riding so low that it’ll drag the curbs differently? That’s one of my questions coming in to this weekend.”
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