Kurt Busch heading west looking for a first win at hometown track

Kurt Busch’s third-place finish Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a high speed “How Do You Do?” for his new Chip Ganassi Racing team. Two races into the new gig with Ganassi and a new manufacturer in Chevrolet, Busch’s performance Sunday certainly was the right start for his new start.

“I could say it wasn’t anything fantastic or anything exciting, but it really was,” said Busch, who marked his 650th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start Sunday in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. “To finish third in our second outing together and to run with the who’s who of the sport, it just shows Ganassi has got the right stuff.

“[Teammate Kyle] Larson had a tough break. We caught a good break to get on the lead lap with [Joey] Logano and to race in the top five at the end.

“But all in all, for us to get gelled together, to learn what loose and tight was, but man, I just struggled in Turns 3 and 4 and that’s where I got arm wrestled. They took us, but hey, we’re top-five in this kind of run.  … Chip [Ganassi] was standing right there, and thanks to Felix [Sabates] and Rob [Kauffman], our owners, it’s a third-place finish, and we’ll take it.”

Busch actually has a positive habit of starting off strong with new teams. When he arrived at Team Penske in 2006 (after winning the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title in five seasons with Roush-Fenway Racing), Busch won a pole position in his second start with Penske – at Fontana, Calif. – then won in his fifth start with the team at Bristol, Tenn.

When Busch moved to the small, independent James Finch team in 2012, he scored a top-10 finish (fifth at Fontana) in only his fifth start. The next season he went to Furniture Row Racing and finished fourth in his fourth start (at Bristol, Tenn.) and fifth in his fifth start (Fontana) – both high marks for single-car teams.

He started his five-year tenure with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 in a similar manner – scoring his first victory with SHR (at Martinsville, Va.) in only his sixth start for the team.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series moves to Busch’s hometown, Las Vegas, for this weekend’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (at 3:30 pm ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s the first of three races on the West Coast, which also includes stops at ISM Raceway in Phoenix next week and Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. in two weeks.

It’s typically a time of great anticipation for the ever-growing number of Monster Energy Series drivers who hail from the region and a chance to shine in front of the hometown fans. Four of the eight West Coasters are series champions; including seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon, California), 2014 Cup champ Kevin Harvick (Bakersfield, California) along with 2004 champ Kurt Busch and his brother, 2015 champion Kyle Busch (both from Las Vegas, Nevada).

For Kurt Busch, this week’s Westward expansion is not only about doing well in front of the home crowd – it’s about doing well in general.

Ironically, the only track among the three West Coast stops where Busch hasn’t won previously, is his hometown track – Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He has a pair of pole positions and four top-10s but third place is his best effort and that came back in 2005, just after he won his series title. His recent showings there – 20th or worse in the last seven Vegas races – certainly provide motivation.

Busch’s record at the other upcoming tracks in Phoenix and California features a victory at each. At the Phoenix one-miler, Busch won in 2005 and has 18 top-10 finishes in 32 starts including a five-race string of top-10s from 2014-16. He’s won four pole positions at the Fontana two-miler and won the race in 2003. He has 12 top-10s in 25 starts there.

If last Sunday’s race – his second with the Ganassi team – is a true indicator, it seems as if he’s finding his footing with his new team and new power plant. Most encouraging for him, was that it wasn’t just himself that had a good day. He led a lap, but his teammate Kyle Larson led the most on the day (142) only to receive a late race pit road penalty that left him 12th . Brad Keselowski won the race by .218-second over Martin Truex Jr. and Busch.

Busch’s day, however, was a positive send-off for a high-hopes homecoming.

“It was really good,” Busch said smiling. “To find that looseness and tightness balance. We had long runs, we had short runs, we went through a lot today.

“So, we need to just sit down in the board room and really debrief. What we have, where the speed was in the No. 42 [Larson] early on and be able to capitalize late.”

Greg Engle