An interview with: KURT BUSCH
ASHLEY JONES: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR teleconference. Our guest today is Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Kurt is currently tied for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead with Tony Stewart. Kurt is also off to a quick start this season having won the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, and has three top-10 finishes in the first races this season, including a fifth-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Kurt has also had success at the Bristol Motor Speedway having won there five times with 12 top 10 finishes.
Kurt, as we head to Bristol this weekend, how do you hope to continue to keep up with the momentum this season?
KURT BUSCH: It's been a great start to the season with our No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge. A little bit of concern heading in with the new look and new feel, but that just gave our team that much more energy and excitement around each of our events this year, not just Daytona, but of course Phoenix, sitting outside pole, then heading out to my hometown of Las Vegas.
It's been a great season. We go down to one of my favorite racetracks where we've done very well. I think we had a top five and top 10 last year in both races.
It's a matter of settling back into the regular season so to speak because I was off messing around with my NHRA last weekend with our Shell Dodge colors. A lot of fun.
But like you said, three top 10s to start the season. Now we're heading into what I think is the regular season.
ASHLEY JONES: We'll now go to the media for questions for Kurt Busch.
Q. Kurt, good reaction time, ran well in Gainesville. Do you have any thoughts on what you might like to see one day, some of the things you liked about the NHRA experience from the fan perspective maybe somehow be integrated into the NASCAR experience?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it was such a great time that I had there with the fans. The sponsors, the way they get their solid advertising in the NHRA world is with the open paddock. A lot of times you see the way that fans can interact with the midway gains, the grandstands are right there. You file out of the grandstands, then you have the perfect pit-area-type atmosphere. It's easy that way because all the cars are towed through the pits. Nobody really drives through like we do with our garage area where there's the hot pit area. That's the biggest difference that I see.
But one thing that's awesome about what NASCAR is moving forward with, with the new garage areas, such as what we have out in Las Vegas with the neon garage, is an interactive atmosphere to get the fans more connected with the action. That's what NHRA does, and that's what Vegas has done with the neon garage, as well as Daytona with their new garage area.
It's just a matter of putting the action right in front of the fans. I think that's the most important key element between the two different series.
Q. With the good reaction times you had out there on the drag strip, do you think that might help you when you get the green flag?
KURT BUSCH: Well, that's one thing I've been joking around with. Honestly, I feel like it has helped me. I've been going through the different training processes through the NHRA Drag Racing school with Roy Hill. And that has helped me I think on the Cup Series, just feeling the 800 horsepower that we have with the Cup cars, versus the 1400 with a Pro Stocker.
Well, it was such a great time that I had there with the fans.
But it's been great just to feel the rear tires, try not to slip them on restarts, hopefully that will help me on the short tracks, Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond, even our road courses where we're trying to put down that good forward bite.
Q. When you look at restarts at the Cup level, what makes one driver better at restarts than another? Is it almost a specialized skill? Guts? Courage? What is it?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I think the key element is anticipating when the other guy is going to accelerate. Secondly, it's not slipping your rear tires. Most of the restarts that we have, we start in second gear so you have to shift from second to third into fourth. You have to hit your shift marks just right. We have plenty of horsepower so it's very easy to slip the tires.
Another key element is to be able to react to which lane is going to have the advantage, whether it's the high lane, the low lane, whether you have to squeak it into the middle. There's all kinds of action that happens on restarts. Restarts are an important element of what we go through in Cup racing.
Q. How key can they be in determining who wins a race?
KURT BUSCH: Well, when it's a green-white-checkered, coming down to a final restart at the end of the race, it's a pivotal moment. Once you get past the initial start of the race, you settle into common restarts. Once you get towards the end of the race, it's very important to pick up positions as quick as you can. If you're the leader, you have to protect your position up front and get that jump on the competition.
Q. A lot of people have been talking about the most memorable moments at Bristol Motor Speedway. You have certainly been a part of memorable moments there. What do you think is the most memorable racing moment at Bristol Motor Speedway and how can you explain what it's like to race there?
KURT BUSCH: It's really difficult to pick out one specific memorable moment above the rest. It's always tough to pick the best.
A moment when I was a kid watching races, when Dale, Sr., was racing Terry Labonte, said he wanted to rattle his cage, flat out wrecked him. It was one of those moments that made Bristol what it is today. The night race, the energy, the excitement, the close action that you have on the half-mile short track, that moment really stood out to me.
When I was able to win my first race there, moving Jimmy Spencer out of the way, I didn't wreck him, but I did move him, that's the short track atmosphere, the excitement you see at Bristol. That's what makes it so much fun and intense.
Q. Do you think you have that track figured out? Has that changed now?
KURT BUSCH: The track has definitely changed. I don't think by any means do I have it figured out. Once they've gone to the new style of banking, the progressive banking, new concrete, it's definitely been a more generous Bristol. Each time we go back, it seems like the drivers are more comfortable, ready to mix it up even that much more.
Anytime you win at Bristol, it's special. It's one of those marquee tracks on the circuit.
Q. You're the only driver who has top 10s in all three races so far this year. I was curious if you have a theory, why is that?
KURT BUSCH: We've had just nice, steady races so far this year. We've only had one really big flub, when I spun the car at Vegas early on in the race. But beyond that, it's been nice. Steady pit stops. The engine department has done their jobs. We set up the cars fairly well. There's a new nose, so there's a bit of difference for all the teams.
For us we still feel like we need to be stronger if we're going to break through into Victory Lane. I mean Carl Edwards had just flat out had the best car this season, and Stewart's done a great job of showing his muscle.
For us, we're right in the mix. We just need to be that consistent car right now in the beginning of the year, just to honestly see how the points start stacking up. Is this points system that different or is it still relatively the same?
It's still unknown. I still think consistency is a big key any time you're racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Q. You're either tied for the lead in the points or second if you go through the tiebreakers already. Do you feel it's one or two guys to beat right when you look at championship?
KURT BUSCH: No, it's very difficult to look at points or to see how things are going to make out. Right now, the muscle is with the Ford camp, with their improvements this year. The Hendrick guys haven't quite shown the strength. Yes, Jeff Gordon did win Phoenix. The mile-and-a-half's are our core racetracks we race on throughout the year. We'll see how that settles in over the next few weeks, especially when we go to Texas, then once we hit Darlington, of course the Charlotte race weeks. That's when you get more a perspective on who is going to be your championship contenders.
Q. Usually the NASCAR race, you're in the car for several hours. What was it like at the Gator Nationals to work all day and then have your day completely end in six or seven seconds?
KURT BUSCH: Well, that's the big difference in drag racing versus NASCAR. The way that things are set up, you're a hero or you're a zero in drag racing. When you have luck on your side, you hope that you continue to advance through the rounds. But you know ultimately it can come to an end right away.
For us to go into Sunday, it was an accomplishment to qualify. At the same time, the expectations were to advance, but knowing we could get beat right away.
The satisfaction of the whole event to me was after the first round, yes, we were eliminated. I think it was an honorable defeat. It was a respectable defeat, a loss we can hold our heads up about. When you look at the first round of the eight matches, we would have been beat half the field after our first round with reaction time and elapsed time.
It was something that the left lane was handicapped a little bit with the grip. Not many guys ran very well in the left lane. That's the thing. You want to be in the top half of the ladder so you have lane choice.
There's so many little things that go into drag racing, it's very easy to chair quarterback it, look at what we did wrong. All in all, I thought it was a great weekend with our Shell Dodge in the Pro Stocker.
Q. Was it strange to walk away after only six seconds?
KURT BUSCH: That's the part of drag racing that is difficult to explain, but it's just part of the sport. You have the opportunity to get beat at any given moment. Your day can start and end just as quickly.
Q. What is your take on the new qualifying procedures based on practice speeds? Do you feel it's really an accurate way of providing qualifying? Are drivers sandbagging or putting their best effort in in practice?
KURT BUSCH: I think it's a great procedure. It's gotten down to a game of thousandths of a second, similar to what I experienced in NHRA. When you have an early draw, it can be the best thing or the worst thing.
Now you can control your destiny. Now you can decide if you want to go out early or late. If you're struggling, it seems to put you further behind.
Now you can control your destiny. Now you can decide if you want to go out early or late.
Out in Phoenix, we had a great racecar. We laid down a lap early in practice. That enabled us to take a last qualifying lap. Put us outside pole.
Vegas, didn't get a good qualifying run in. That made us go out early. We qualified pretty good, but ended up 22nd due to the draw because we had to go out so early. That's where now the game changes a little bit how you position yourself for qualifying day.
Q. Drag racing question for you. What are your future plans with the Pro Stock car now and do you see this being something that maybe you kind of take on more full-time after you're out of the Cup car?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I feel like we're just limited so much on the schedule, it's tough to get out there and say we're going to do more races. The only one that does line up is in July. It's the Mopar Mile High Nationals, which would be a great fit.
For me, I think we need to be focused on our Cup car at that point in the season. It's the end of July. We have August and a little bit of September before we have to be locked into the Chase. If we're not running well in the points, we don't need to go Pro Stock racing.
Only time will tell. We'll know what type of feeling we'll be having with our Cup car on the NASCAR side. I still feel like I have 10 or 15 years left racing a Sprint Cup car. If I do, the NHRA Pro Stock will have to wait. Right now my love and my heart is in NASCAR. This is where I want to be and I want to deliver a championship to Penske Racing. And we have to work on those things to make it happen.
Q. Can you tell us what it's like to take a run, hitting the throttle, staging all that stuff?
KURT BUSCH: It's an amazing feeling. You're sitting in the staging lanes trying to go through your head on what you have to do to do the burnout, to stage the car, shift it properly going down the racetrack.
When they pull you up there, you fire the engine up. If you don't have lane choice, you wait to see what lane you're going to get. There's little differences in between each side on what you have to look at when you look at the Christmas tree.
Doing the burnout, you have to set the line lock at 1200 pounds on the brake pressure. You actually start the burnout in third gear, hit fourth gear, hit fifth gear. You're actually wide open in fifth gear during the burnout, which is pretty intense.
You have to slow the car down after the burnout properly, put your tire right back in the same marks where you did your burnout. Just a very small margin of error that you're dealing with. You have to get everything just exactly right.
I feel like in drag racing you have the perfect run to start with. It's just how you execute is how many hundredths or thousandths of a second that you lose during your run. Whether you're steering the car too much, whether you're off a little bit on your line, whether you hit your shift marks exactly perfect, it's a tough game.
Reaction time of course is one of the most important elements. You have to go right when you have to hit that mark just right on the Christmas tree.
Q. Wanted to find out what the reaction was from the other drivers in the NHRA? Did they like to see you there, have any questions? What was that like?
KURT BUSCH: It was an incredible experience. Everybody was welcoming us into their group. The fraternity of drivers was encouraging us, offering advice, trying to help us. It was really a unique feeling to be the new guy but also to be the one with the notoriety from the Sprint Cup Series, and the excitement level for the energy of everybody there.
I mean, even Jason Line, the guy that's won so far this year, came up to me and said, Thank you for being part of our division and shedding light on the Pro Stock division.
I said, Wow, I'm just little ol' me.
He said, You come with a lot more weight than you know, and anything you need, I'm here for advice.
It was great to see everything come full circle.
Q. On the flipside, what was the feeling like for you being a rookie again?
KURT BUSCH: It was that exact feeling. It reminded me of when I was in the Truck Series, switching over into Cup, not being familiar with any of the surroundings, just learning each day what the schedule meant, how to interact with the time that we had with the crew. Of course with the fans, it was great.
Just an overall positive experience and something I'm very proud of with putting the team together myself, full group of volunteers, and teaming up with Alan Johnson and those Mopar guys. It was a unique experience all the way around.
Q. You spent some time with some NHRA legends in Gainesville like 'Big Daddy' and John Force. What was that like? What do champions like you talk about to other champions?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I was just humbled to have the opportunity to share the stage with those legends, what they've done in the drag racing world will never be equaled. It might be, but those were definitely the top of the top. To be mixed in with them, to have that notoriety, it was an unbelievable experience.
I'm just the new guy racing Pro Stock, but look at the cars you guys have driven. Look at the crazy things you drag racers have done over the years. Primarily 'Big Daddy', with no safety hardly in mind back in the day. It was just go as fast as you can go. The side effects they would deal with later. With John Force, being 61 years old, still winning championships, having his near-fatal crash three years ago. The safety things he's implemented into their sport the past few years.
It's amazing to sit there and listen to their stories and be compared to them, to share the stage. I'm just beside myself. It was just an overall grand experience that I will never forget.
The opportunity I had to go out there and be competitive, I just have to thank Dodge and Shell for giving me that chance to go and play.
Well, I was just humbled to have the opportunity to share the stage with those legends.
Q. Tony Stewart and Tony Schumacher with the Top Fuel Army Dragster, Tony puts that on his bucket list of things to do. Would you ever jump into one of those things?
KURT BUSCH: Anytime you get a chance to drive one of these cars in the Pro division, it's an experience. It's definitely in the bucket list of mine to jump into a Fuel car or Nitro car and do what they call take a squirt, which is basically you launch off the line, go about maybe 330 feet, let off. Just to feel that five Gs of adrenaline off a launch.
I encourage them to go out and do it. Schumacher is a great guy. I'm friends with Larry Dixon, the old snake Don Prudhomme, and guys like Don Schumacher have definitely reached out for me. Really neat to have an experience to talk with these guys.
Q. Do you think with the new nose and the splitter being formed into the bumper, does that encourage more roughness at a place like Bristol, less damage to the splitter?
KURT BUSCH: The splitters still have the same ride height which still puts it in a bad position I think to rub the racetrack the wrong way or clip the apron and you have some damage. Even when you spin at these high-bank racetracks, it seems to rip the front end right off. We didn't have that with the old car. It's about the same as it used to be; it's just a little more beefed up I guess you could say.
The drivers aren't thinking any different about it. It's just the way the splitter is. It's just too low to the ground to start with. When we have the tight shocks on the cars, we really pin that nose to the racetrack. There's quite a bit of side effects that happen when you touch the grass, like my little brother did at Vegas, or when you slide off the banking and grab the apron the wrong way. Harmless spins are damaging these cars in a great way which I think NASCAR needs to take a look at.
Q. Considering where you're at in points, it's only three races in, can you take a chance that maybe a guy who is 30th or 31st in points can't think about taking right now?
KURT BUSCH: I'll tell you one thing, on these lines of thinking, right now a guy like Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, they have a better shot at making the Chase than I do right now because they have a win. They're not necessarily guaranteed a spot because more wins will come from other drivers later on. If the Chase were right now, those two would be the only two guaranteed in because of their wins.
Q. We know how introductions go at Cup races. There's a lot of cheering, a lot of booing. Were you a little surprised, did you hear any booing when any of the NHRA pros were introduced?
KURT BUSCH: No, not at all. It was all cheers for everybody. Talking with some of the big executives at NHRA, back in the day they used to do an NHRA versus NASCAR softball game. I believe it was for charity. There was quite a bit of excitement around it. You'd hear the NASCAR guys come up. There would be the yeas and the nays. Then you would hear the NHRA guys and there would be an applause. It wouldn't be as loud, but everybody would applaud.
That's the difference in the NHRA world, to hear everybody get congratulated on their effort. The fans were abuzz on how we were doing. We struggled on Friday, showed good results on Saturday. In the end it seemed like the general consensus was, Hey, he really put a full effort into this, they did a great job, we're happy for them. I think that happens for everybody that puts a great effort in the NHRA world because it's very difficult just to make a race and then you're a hero or a zero at that level because you can be eliminated quick. Great fan reaction down in Gainesville.
ASHLEY JONES: Thank you, everybody, for participating today. We appreciate your attendance on the call. Kurt, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it. Best of luck this weekend in Bristol.
KURT BUSCH: Thanks so much. Appreciate you having me on. Back to Bristol, short-track racing that we've all come accustomed to loving in NASCAR racing.