KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – The number “500” has great significance in auto racing.
The Indianapolis 500 – long called the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” – is the original 500-mile race. It was first run in 1911, and is still widely known as “The 500” in racing circles.
The Southern 500 NASCAR race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway followed suit in 1950, while the Daytona 500 was first contested in 1959. Since then, 500-lap races have become the norm at short tracks and there are other 500-mile races at racetracks across the country.
In his first-ever IndyCar start in this year’s Indianapolis 500, Kurt Busch scored an impressive sixth-place finish. In the Southern 500, he has a career-best finish of third, while he has three runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500.
This weekend, the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) will become a member of another elite club of drivers as he makes his 500th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Busch is just one of a handful of drivers who has raced in each of these marquee 500-mile events.
The Las Vegas native began his Sprint Cup Series career in 2000, when he ran a limited, seven-race schedule for Roush-Fenway Racing in the No. 97 car. His first race came at the same concrete mile oval where the Sprint Cup Series will race this weekend. In that first race, Busch started 10th and finished 18th.
Now, 499 races, 25 Sprint Cup Series victories and one Sprint Cup Series championship later, Busch is poised to make his 500th start at the same track where his Sprint Cup career began. To commemorate his accomplishment, Busch’s Haas Automation Chevy will have a special brushed-metal appearance this weekend at Dover and also will carry a 500th start logo on the nose of the car.
But for Busch, this weekend’s AAA 400 carries an even greater significance than it simply being his 500th career start, as he is one of 14 drivers – nine of whom are separated by just 18 points – fighting for a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s revamped 10-race playoff.
The new championship format breaks the 10-race Chase into a four-round tournament, of sorts. The first round, named the Challenger Round, features races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, and Sunday’s race at Dover. After Dover, four drivers are eliminated and 12 drivers remain for the next round, named the Contender Round.
Race winners from each round automatically advance to the next round, with the remaining advancing teams determined by total points accumulated. A disappointing 36th-place finish at New Hampshire last weekend dropped Busch to 15th in the point standings and in a battle for survival as the series heads to Dover, where he has a 2011 win, six top-five finishes and eight top-10s in 28 starts.
Busch wants nothing more than to continue his quest for a second Sprint Cup Series championship, and the best way to do that would be to run up front and challenge for the win this weekend. There would be no better way for Busch to put an exclamation mark on career start No. 500 than by winning at the same track where he started his Sprint Cup career.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Talk a little bit about racing at Dover.
“It’s called the Monster Mile for a reason – the track can chew up cars and spit them out. And it’s because of the tough transitions into the corners with the high banking and even the high-banked straightaways. It’s tough to do that sharp of a turn on a mile racetrack. It’s like you literally jump down into the corner and then jump back up out of the corner onto the straightaway, and so those points of the track are the toughest part – the transition from straightaway to corner. It’s a fun track to drive. You’re always on that edge and, when you’re fast there, it feels extra fast because of how close you have to cut it on corner exit and not hit the wall.”
What’s the toughest part about racing at Dover?
“The toughest part about racing Dover is when the track rubbers in and you’re out there for 350 laps, and that last 50 you haven’t simulated in practice, whatsoever, and that is when the track gets rubbered in. You’re out there slip-sliding around and you have to be dialed in for that last 50 laps. It’s hard to predict what setup you need exactly for that and I’ve only found it one time. I’ve only got one win there, and that was September 2011.”
How physical a track is Dover?
“You’re just on edge there and, the speed that you have to carry on corner exit, you’re right there on the edge of smacking the wall every corner exit and you do it 800 times with 400 laps and two corner exits. That makes it tough. This race will wear you out, for sure, and you have to pace yourself.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine