Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion, met with media members Thursday prior to opening Monster Energy Cup Series practice at Daytona International Speedway.
KURT BUSCH, No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion — HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO GO SAY “HI” TO YOUR WINNING DAYTONA 500 CAR? “I haven’t just yet, but I can’t wait. I just got in. It’s so special to coming back to Daytona. I can feel it. It’s helping me absorb what we did here back in February.”
EVERY DRIVER WANTS TO WIN THIS RACE. IS EVERYBODY IN THE GARAGE ROOTING FOR DALE JR. TO WIN ON SATURDAY? “I think you’re onto something there, for sure. Everybody wants to win it. Yes, this could be Dale’s last time in a top Monster Energy Series car at Daytona. It’s going to be a good battle. I guarantee he’s going to be elbows up, sleeves up, and he will be the car to beat this weekend.”
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST ADJUSTMENT MOVING OVER TO FORD? “Not to get too specific about the adjustment with Ford because of the aerodynamic balance or the horsepower torque range, little things here or there. What’s actually helped us at Ford is that there are so many areas to really go back and cover again. Things that we may not have changed in 18 months or a couple years, we’re looking back in more detail. That’s the biggest thing that has helped us at Ford. Their technology center that they bring to the race track every week with a group of engineers running the numbers throughout the race. They’re scanning all the drivers. And the amount of information that they can get to our pit box as quick as they do, once I saw it happen the first three or four weeks, I was blown away. It’s been big on the Ford Performance side.”
CAN YOU ASSESS YOUR SEASON SO FAR? “To start off winning the biggest stock car race in the world and to have the chance to hoist up the Harley J. Earl trophy, that was a special moment and the highlight of my career. That isn’t something to rest on. I would say a few weeks after that, we were slightly hungover, not necessarily literally. I just seemed like a fog. The energy. I get sent on a media tour. Tony Gibson lives here in the shadows of Daytona International Speedway. All of us were so excited. We’re ordering rings, flags. We’re taking the Harley J. Earl trophy to Ford’s headquarters, Monster’s headquarters, Haas’ headquarter…there was a lot going on. Once we settled in and learned the balance of our Ford and how things were changing here and there, quite honestly, I think we’ve done great. In half the races this year we have a top-10 finish. Harvick won last week on a road course. For us to win at a superspeedway shows the versatility that Stewart-Haas has. We have to focus on the mile-and-a-halves and making sure we are best prepared for when the playoffs start”
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT FROM A COMPETITIVE STANDPOINT, IS IT LIKE PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY FROM A TEAM PERSPECTIVE? “The way that it seems to have unfolded the last few years for us on the 41 car, we’re always building up to that win, running well. Top-five here. A bad day might be 12th. And then we broke through at Pocono last summer and then it seems like it’s a struggle after you win. And then you have to get it rebuilt of adjust and not get complacent and get ready for the playoffs. So when you win the first race of the year it changes the game on how you have to adjust and build it back up. I feel like with an experienced leader like Tony Gibson and now with a half a season under our belt with Ford and everybody at Stewart-Haas…Clint Bowyer has now found a better rhythm with his crew chief…it all looks like we’ve got everything with the up arrow around it.”
THIS IS THE ONLY NIGHTTIME RESTRICTOR PLATE RACE. WHAT SETS THIS RACE APART? “Everything runs cooler at night so there’s more grip. We’ll always run more aggressively with the tape on the aerodynamic side so that the cars are slicker through the air. At night you can trust the grip level of the track, a bit more consistent. I think this time around the cars will have more grip than what they did in February. Back in February it was slick. There were a lot of incidents; Trucks series, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup. We’ll see how it plays out this time around. We should more grip.”
DOES THE ‘EARL WORLD TOUR’ END THIS WEEK? DO YOU WISH THAT YOU HAD YOUR DAYTONA 500 CAR THIS WEEKEND? “The Stanley Cup tradition is 100 days. After you win the Stanley Cup you get to take the Cup around. When Earl and I went out on a boat ride on Lake Norman it was in May. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey man, I’m tired. I want to hang out with the other trophies in the trophy room.’ When he was hanging out with the crew guys they didn’t do a lot of things on social media with him that should have been done. Again, it’s that buzz and energy with winning the Daytona 500 and having that Harley J. Earl trophy, it’s very special. And the reason with doing such a tour with the trophy is the fact that when I called Daytona International Speedway on Monday looking for replicas they said that there’s only two that they make per year. Gene Haas has his at Haas Automation headquarters and I have mine at my home and I wanted to share it with everybody. Yeah, it’s a little disappointing that we don’t have our winning car from Daytona. On Monday afterwards we were pushing it into the museum at the Motorsports Hall of Fame. That experience of losing a race-winning car is tough to accept. But at the end of the day one of the coolest feelings in the world. You know what? We’ll go build another one and the car we’re this weekend finished sixth earlier this year at Talladega. We’ll be alright.”
HOW DO YOU FOCUS ON THE MILE-AND-HALVES WHEN KENTUCKY IS THE ONLY MILE-AND-A-HALF BETWEEN NOW AND CHICAGOLAND. DO YOU LOBBY TO GET INTO THE ATLANTA TIRE TEST IN AUGUST. SIM WORK? “Well, we tested at Kentucky earlier…about a month ago…working with Goodyear on the tires. I know that we have a Chicago test with Goodyear on the tire that they’re wanting to bring to that race. And then I believe there is a rule change with the front splitter that (they’re) going to implement once we get to Kentucky. And so that will change the balance on all the cars at the mile-and-a-halves. Again, a lot of it is getting into sim work. I was on the simulator before we went out to Sonoma to physically drive the simulator. And then there is the computer simulation models that the engineers use. I think it’s just getting into more details. Going further understanding what it’s going to take to successful at Chicago, Dover, Charlotte, Kansas. Texas is one of the most important races…it use to be…because the asphalt surface was very comparable to Homestead. So right now I think the two most important races coming up are Kentucky and Chicago if we’re gearing up for a championship run.”
I SAW THAT YOUR LOVELY BRIDE TWEETED SAYING THAT THE FOURTH OF JULY IS YOUR FAVORITE WEEKEND. CURIOUS TO WHY THAT IS? “Growing up in Las Vegas it was always the July 4th firework show. The Strip always put on a show. As a kid, you don’t quite digest what the Fourth of July is. As I got older you realize it’s about the independence and freedom that we obtained as a country. The pure heat and hotness of the summer months…July 4th is right in the middle of summer break…it always seemed like a great celebration. Over the years with military and understanding the military…the red, white and blue…it’s easy to have your pride bleed through. With fireworks and lemonade, cold beer, Monster, it’s a time to kick back and enjoy the summer months with family. I’ve always tried to coordinate July 4th parties. Last year we through a huge bash on Lake Norman. We rented a floating barge to set the fireworks off of. We had county sheriff patrol help keep people away from the firework barge. Had all the safety implements put into place. We’re still hearing about it. Everybody in Lake Norman is like, ‘Is Kurt doing his party again this year?’ And I conned a friend in Vegas to throw a party. So I’m headed out West to have a big party in Vegas, July 4th. It will be fun. Just to kick back and relax. It’s perfect. It’s on a Tuesday. It will be a fun little party on Tuesday.
ARE YOU STARTING TO GET WORRIED THAT MONSTER HASN’T DECIDED YET TO SPONSOR THE 41 NEXT YEAR? “I don’t have any worries. I know that I delivered for the team. Our performance level isn’t one that should be in question. Winning the Daytona 500 is special, but performing week in and week out, the deliverables that I bring sponsorship wise, that comes into play. I know that they’re working with NASCAR to try to sort out their issues with NASCAR and the entitlement sponsor. So there’s a lot of moving parts. But I don’t feel any fear whatsoever. I actually feel really confident on the sponsorship that I bring. Ford Performance’s involvement with Stewart-Haas and how I blended in with this team, I feel great.
CAN YOU CLARIFY YOUR CONTRACT STATUS? THIS RACE SEEMS TO BE MORE ABOUT TRACK POSITION. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED? “For me, the team has the option on my contract and they just have to notify me by a certain date if they are going to pick that option up. It’s as easy as that. I feel that however the timing works out I feel very confident that everything will come together.
“As far as the average running position and where you need to be at Daytona and Talladega to win, I think it’s all about the final segment running position. Wherever the numbers have shown, I think you have to be at the top-six to have a shot at it.”
AFTER WINNING THE DAYTONA 500 BACK IN FEBRUARY, IS THERE A DIFFERENT FEELING NOW COMING BACK TO DAYTONA? “Yeah, it feels great. To have a Daytona 500 win and the ring, trophy and the prestige and the value of that win. And how I won the race is something you have in your back pocket in terms of the knowledge and understanding of what took place at the end. The draft and the move that I made. The handling characteristics with the car. But you can’t be too complacent. You have to find new things and put more tools in your toolbox to be able to have that advantage at the end of the race when it comes to mastering the draft. By no means do i think that I’ve mastered it. There are guys that have more tools in their toolbox to try and use and I need to do a better job too to be able to have more restrictor-plate wins.”
DO YOU FEEL LIKE AN UNDERRATED PLATE RACER? “I just still need to continue to do my job to be better. You can’t be complacent even if you’ve won a race. Dale Jr. has the win quantity and that’s what I’m referring to when he’s the favorite going into the weekend. The things he’s done on the track…if I’m watching video….I’m watching the 88 car to learn how to do different things. My statistics have been good, consistent. I’ve been lucky in a bunch of situations to avoid the ‘big one’ and it’s helped me develop those average finishes. We look forward coming to restrictor-plate races at Stewart-Haas. Tony Gibson is a good crew for the restrictor-plates and happy to have him on my side and I want to go there and deliver for him and the team.
WITH 10 DIFFERENT WINNERS THIS YEAR, HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR YOU TO STAY INSIDE THE TOP 10 AND USE THE PLAYOFF POINTS YOU’VE ACCUMULATED DURING THE REGULAR SEASON? “There could be more than 16 winners. And then it gets into who is higher in points. And there is more wins or stage victories to carry those points through the playoffs. And so I look at it…we’re ahead of (Ryan) Newman, (Austin) Dillon, (Ricky) Stenhouse. We’re right there with (Ryan) Blaney who won Pocono a few weeks ago. If we end up with more than 16 winners then you’re in that pool of racing the guys who have one win. Our job ultimately is to win the championship. So we don’t need to be looking at what it takes to just get into the playoffs, we need to be accumulating those bonus points that stay with you through the playoffs. A guy like (Martin) Truex, he can almost lollygag all the way to Homestead with as many playoff points as he’s accumulated. Kyle Larson can almost do the same thing. Whoever has those bonus points can just cruise in a small way through some of the rounds of the playoffs. We’ll see how it all plays out. We need to accumulate more bonus points to be more competitive to be one of those final four at Homestead.”