KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – As the Sprint Cup Series heads to Sparta, Kentucky for Saturday night’s Kentucky 400, Kurt Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion and driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), remembers his first start at Kentucky when the track hosted its inaugural event – a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race.
Kentucky Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event in June 2000. And Busch, then a rookie in the series, arrived at Kentucky Speedway determined to prove that a rookie could win just as easily as a veteran in an inaugural event. After all, no driver had previous experience at that racetrack since each was making his first trip.
Unfortunately for Busch, his theory did not play out as planned. He started 32nd and over-drove every turn before eventually wrecking his truck on lap 111 of the scheduled 150-lap event. His Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle, in his third season as a driver in the Camping World Truck Series, went on to win the inaugural event.
It took the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series until 2011 to make its first visit to the Bluegrass State. In the years between 2000 and 2011, the track was not used by NASCAR’s premier series, which meant that teams could use the track liberally for testing. Busch claims that his team at the time, Roush Racing, visited the track almost every other Tuesday to try new things for upcoming races.
By the time the Sprint Cup Series debuted at the track in 2011, Busch had enough laps and experience there through testing to give him a shot at redemption. While Busch is still looking for his first win at the track, he has been able to record two top-10s and never finished outside the top-20 in a Sprint Cup event. He has completed all 801 laps of Sprint Cup competition since 2011, and has an average start of 15th and average finish of 11th. He also has led 41 laps.
This weekend, Busch is looking to add to his current streak of three consecutive top-15 finishes and four straight top-20s. But would most love to score his second win of the season in Saturday night’s Kentucky 400.
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, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards each have two wins this season. Busch is one of five single-race winners as the series heads to race 17 of 36.
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 Kentucky?
“Kentucky is a tough 1.5-mile circuit that’s relatively new to the Sprint Cup schedule. The track has a unique set of bumps that makes it different from a lot of the typical 1.5-mile tracks that we see. It’s kind of a one-off race with its own setup issues. You can overthink Kentucky a little bit because there’s nothing similar to it.”
What was the first thing you thought when you came to Kentucky for the first time?
“I went there for the first time when I was racing trucks. It was an inaugural race for the trucks. I thought that, since it was the first time anyone went there, that rookies had just as good of a shot to win as veterans. I over-drove that race every ounce I could and ended up wrecking with about 15 laps to go while running in the lead pack. I hit pretty hard. I think that was one of the hardest hits I’ve taken. Kentucky stood up and bit me the first time I was there. And, up until recently, we never ran a Cup race there, so we used it as a test facility. So, my time when I was at Roush, I think we were there every other Tuesday making laps. So, I have plenty of laps at Kentucky, but not in race configuration.”
How much does all that early testing help you now when the Sprint Cup Series visits Kentucky?
“It’s a track that you have to work on the bumps – flat out. And then the race ends at night. It starts at dusk and ends at night, so the pace keeps getting faster and faster as the race goes on. I haven’t been able to find that winning balance, yet, but I’ve had some good runs with a couple of top-10s. To be able to break through for the wins, I’ll have to get the front of the car to absorb the bumps and be able to keep my foot on the floor.”
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