KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – An unbelievable feeling. That’s how Kurt Busch described his No. 41 Haas Automation team’s breakthrough win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway earlier this season.
For the Las Vegas native, it was a long and oftentimes difficult journey to finally get back to victory lane that day in March. The Martinsville win ended an 83-race winless streak that dated back to Oct. 2, 2011, at Dover (Del.) International Speedway and spanned Busch’s stops with three different teams over the past three seasons.
Delivering a win for his new team – for owner Gene Haas and sponsor Haas Automation – in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) was a dream come true for Busch. When Haas hand-picked Busch to drive the No. 41 car, he told the 2004 Sprint Cup champion that his job was simple – to win races. Haas wanted to see his car and, more importantly, his Haas Automation colors in the winner’s circle.
Just six races into the season, Busch delivered on that mission. While the win was Busch’s 25th career victory and his second at the Virginia short track, it was the first for Haas Automation as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series.
Haas Automation is the largest CNC machine tool builder in the western world and is owned by SHR co-owner Haas. The company had served as a primary sponsor in the Sprint Cup Series for 11 different drivers and 114 races since 2002 before finally getting to victory lane with Busch in March.
While the win achieved his owner’s goal of getting Haas Automation in victory lane, the win was perhaps even more important by the fact it helped secure Busch a spot in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. It also served notice to his competitors in the garage that Busch and his No. 41 Haas Automation team would be a contender in 2014.
Earlier this season at Martinsville, victory lane seemed like an unlikely destination for Busch and the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet at the rough-and-tumble .526-mile oval. Busch had a fast racecar, but a pit-road incident came close to ruining the day for the No. 41 team. Busch’s Chevy sustained damage after drivers Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski collided during a round of yellow-flag pit stops. After an extra trip to pit road for repairs, Busch restarted the race deep in the field in 38th place.
He then went to work and steadily picked up positions on the track, overcoming a few handling issues as the team continued to massage the car’s handling with slight adjustments as the race progressed. The combination of smart pit work and the driver’s on-track savvy served the Haas Automation team well, and Busch took the lead for the first time on lap 243. Although he would surrender the lead a lap later, Busch delivered the message that the No. 41 Haas Automation team was certainly one to beat that day.
As the race drew to a close, it became clear the outcome would be decided between Busch and Jimmie Johnson. The two traded the lead a handful of times during the last 30 laps, with Busch taking the lead for good on lap 490. Johnson made a bold move out of turn four on the final lap, but the six-time Sprint Cup champion and eight-time Martinsville winner was unable to overtake Busch, who had an emotional celebration in victory lane.
While Busch is no longer in contention to win another Sprint Cup championship this year, the Haas Automation driver would like nothing more than to relive that winning moment with a repeat victory at Martinsville Speedway in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Talk a little bit about your win at Martinsville earlier this year.
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to do it. Every time you come to Martinsville, you draw a line through it; like ‘there’s no way I’ll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or challenge for a top-10.’ The old theory is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. We use chassis from Hendrick Motorsports at Stewart-Haas Racing, so maybe that had something to do with it. It was a battle. But there was no better way to bring the Haas Automation Chevy into victory lane than to beat Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, a track where he’s a king. It was a dream come true when Gene Haas called me and told me that he wanted me to drive his car and to go for trophies and wins. It was an unbelievable feeling to deliver on that in just our sixth race together.”
How much more important is track position at a place like Martinsville?
“Track position is everything, everywhere, but at Martinsville, it is just so easy to lose it. It doesn’t take much to find yourself going backward, whether it’s a situation with someone bumping you out of the way or you get too high on the track and up in the marbles. Then, deal with what that does to the tires and, boom, next thing you know, you may have had a 10th-place car and now you are 18th. It’s a goal all day to work your way forward and then just to have smooth pit stops to carry you through those midpoints of the race. Then, at the end, when everything is on the line, you have to be aggressive and you can’t be afraid to use the fenders on people to get that solid finish.”
How much does pit strategy become a factor at Martinsville?
“That is definitely something that comes into play – you may gamble early to pick up some positions on the track, especially if you’ve had trouble in qualifying. It’s just one of those things, though, where you always hope you’re on the right one (strategy) and, if you get caught on the wrong one, then you’re kicking yourself the whole time.”
What is the toughest part about racing at Martinsville?
“To me, the toughest part of Martinsville is that you just never have a moment to breathe. You have to be on your game nonstop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you or you are on top of somebody the whole time, and there is just no room for error.”
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