AVONDALE, Ariz. - Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch is looking forward to this weekend's return to Phoenix International Raceway enormously, so much that he headed from Texas after Sunday's Dickies 500 straight to the "Valley of the...
AVONDALE, Ariz. - Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch is looking forward to this weekend's return to Phoenix International Raceway enormously, so much that he headed from Texas after Sunday's Dickies 500 straight to the "Valley of the Sun."
"Let's see now, it's in the low 80s and sunny every day this week out here and the forecast calls for showers and a cold front moving in back home, so you can probably understand while we came straight out here," Busch chuckled on Monday night from his Scottsdale hotel room. "I brought my clubs, so we'll get in a little golf and get rested up for this weekend's big race at PIR.
"We're really looking forward to Sunday's race, the final flat track race of the season," said Busch, who has won at least one Cup race for seven consecutive seasons. "We're bringing the same car that we raced at New Hampshire (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) back in September and we're hoping we can be that strong out here this weekend."
Busch and his Pat Tryson-led Penske Racing No. 2 Team raced their "PRS-574" Miller Lite Dodge to a win in the rain-shortened June 29 Lenox Tools 300 at the flat 1.058-mile New Hampshire track. They came back for the Sept. 14 Sylvania 300 at NHMS armed with a "clone" of that car, their "PRS-576" Dodge Charger. After starting 20th, Busch quickly moved toward the front to be a top-10 fixture for the remainder of the race.
"The car was probably strong enough to finish a solid top-five for the majority of the race there at Loudon in September," Busch recalled of the only outing to date for this car. "The track got really 'rubbered in' late in the race and we just got too tight. We made adjustments trying to free the car up a bit, but just not quite enough to run with the leaders and we had to settle for a sixth-place finish.
"We have all the data from the Loudon races, April's Phoenix race and last November's Phoenix race that we've already been studying very hard to come up with our baseline qualifying and race setups," said Busch, whose career Cup record on the "Desert Mile" boasts one win, two top-five finishes and five top-10s in 11 career starts. "We're hoping we can have similar flat-track success like we had in the two Loudon races this weekend at PIR."
While the picturesque one-mile oval holds the impressive Cup success for 2004 series champ Busch, it's his many personal memories that make PIR so special.
"The Phoenix track will always be special to me as long as I live," said Busch, a badge-carrying honorary deputy for noted colorful Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "Back when I was only 13, it was the first track that I ever saw the Cup guys run on in person. Growing up in Las Vegas and around racing like I did, it was one of the fondest memories of my life when my dad carried me down to Phoenix back in 1991. Seeing all the races for years on TV and finally getting to attend one in person made a huge impression on a 13-year-old kid, I can tell you that.
"It was at PIR where we wrapped up the 1999 NASCAR Southwest Tour Championship, too, and that will always be so memorable," Busch said. "After winning the title, we got our first big dose of media attention. I'll never forget that day and doing the first national TV interview of my career. Dick Berggren was the interviewer and I was pretty darned nervous, to tell you the truth. He did a lot to keep me calm before we went on the air and the interview went very well. I'll always remember that and be thankful to him for that.
"There are so many special memories associated with the Phoenix area and PIR that it's almost like a second hometown for me," concluded Busch. "We're hoping to add to the list of great memories out here this week."
--Behind the scenes as the 2008 season winds down, Kurt and David Stremme, who'll drive the No. 12 Penske Dodge fulltime next season, are already becoming rock-solid teammates. "Stremme's a really cool guy and I enjoy being around him a lot, whether it's at the track testing or out at a restaurant having dinner and enjoying a few Miller Lites," Kurt said on Monday night. "He brings a lot to the table and our backgrounds are so similar. He grew up racing the late models on the short tracks and so did I. He's got a great seat-of-the-pants feel for the car, but he's also very analytical when it comes to spending time going over data with the engineers, the shock guys and his teammates. We've had a lot of fun already out on the road testing. It's amazing how we're able to get in each other's cars and then compare what we're feeling and what we think needs to be done to improve the cars. We're on the same page and communicate very well." Stremme, who finished 10th in a Rusty Wallace-owned car in last Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Texas, could be found only a matter of a few hours prior to that race over in Busch's No. 2 Cup team hauler. "Stremme's going to be a great teammate for Kurt, Sam (Hornish) and all of us," Pat said on Tuesday morning. "He had his race there on Saturday at Texas to be concerned with, but he chose to spend an hour or so over in the Cup garage with our team discussing the Texas chassis setup information and how our testing went at Nashville earlier in the week. We're really looking forward to having David as our fulltime teammate on the circuit next season."
--Kurt, Pat and crew will be racing their "PRS-576" Miller Lite Dodge this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. "We're bringing the same car that we raced at New Hampshire (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) back in September and we're hoping we can be that strong out here this weekend," Kurt said of the car he used to finished a strong sixth in the Sept. 14 Sylvania 300. "The car was probably strong enough to finish a solid top-five for the majority of the race there at Loudon in September. The track got really 'rubbered in' late in the race and we just got too tight. We made adjustments trying to free the car up a bit, but just not quite enough to run with the leaders and we had to settle for a sixth-place finish."
--If you took a poll among the drivers in the Cup garage, chances are you'd find several who plan on post-season vacations to wind down - say like to some Caribbean destination. That's not the case with Kurt. Instead, the very next day after the Homestead finale, the 2004 champ heads to Texas to begin a 10-day, four-state hunting expedition. "I'm sure that folks might say I'm a little warped to be doing this," Kurt laughed as he explained the details of his trip. "Four or five guys loaded up in a camper and crossing the country hunting may not sound like fun to a lot of folks out there, but we've been planning this trip for months now and can't wait to get out there on the road. Getting out in the woods and back to nature is a great way to wind down; at least it really works for me." Kurt and his hunting posse have locations in Texas, Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota on their schedule.
--While on the subject of David Stremme as the newest teammate and his quick acceptance internally at Penske Racing, members of the "2 crew" were still giving the Indiana native plenty of accolades on Saturday for his recent victory in the prestigious Winchester 400. "That's a huge feather in Stremme's cap, that's for sure," said the "Blue Deuce's" car chief, Corey Tucker. "The fact that he had to start dead last in the 36-car field and blasted up through the field must have really been something to see. When he beat Kyle (Busch) out of the pits at the end and held him off for the win was really impressive. Stremme is a racer's racer." "I'd been coming to the 400 most of my life," Stremme offered. "It's like the Southern 500 at Darlington as far as the significance in late model racing. It was my 10th career start in the 400 and we've come close to winning it before. The fact that Kyle was right on my bumper at the end and we held him off to win it made the victory all the more memorable." Stremme's win came in the 37th edition of the prestigious race. Former winners of the event include Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Butch Miller, Mike Eddy, Bob Senneker and Ted Musgrave. Short-track racing legends Dick Trickle and Alan Kulwicki made numerous starts in the race, but the record book shows third-place finishes as their best efforts.
--While most of the Cup drivers at Texas were either competing in Saturday's Nationwide Series race or at least watching it as interested spectators, Kurt could be found out beside his motor coach in the driver/owner lot tuned into the pay-per-view broadcast of the Alabama-Arkansas State college football game. "We just had to see the Crimson Tide run their record on up to 9 and 0," said Kurt, a Pac 10 fan at heart who has become a big Tide football follower in recent years. "It was Bama's homecoming game and they were up against what many were calling the 'November Curse.' They played a solid game and won it 35 to zip to win their first game in the month of November since 2005. Of course I had to stay up and watch the Texas-Texas Tech game on Saturday night. With Texas losing that one at the last moment, we were talking about the Tide moving up to No. 1 in the polls all Sunday morning."
--The 1.0-mile Phoenix International Raceway will always be a special track for Kurt. "It was the first track that I ever saw the Cup guys run on in person," he said. The date was November 3, 1991. "I was 13 years old and it was such a really big deal when my dad carried me to see my very first big NASCAR Cup race at Phoenix," he recalled. "Growing up in racing like I did and having my parents take me to the short tracks when I was just a toddler really helped put racing in my blood so early in life.
"Watching all the big races on TV back then just added to the desire to get to see one live. NASCAR added a new date at Phoenix for the Cup cars on the schedule back in 1988. It automatically became the big hot ticket event for all the racers out West. Growing up in (Las) Vegas like we did and without the big track there not getting a Cup date until 1998, Phoenix was where it was at back then.
"They came in there and made it such a tremendous racing weekend," Kurt said. "Not only did they have all the big guys - the Cup teams - racing there, they ran the final race of the NASCAR Southwest Tour there, too.
"My dad didn't get to go to that first race back in '88, but he went to the races in '89 and '90," Kurt said. "Then in 1991, he told me pretty far in advance that he was taking me to the Phoenix Cup race that November. It was like a kid anticipating Christmas for me back then. I just couldn't wait.
"We got to go down into the pits before the race and I thought that was so cool," Kurt recalled. "When they fired up the engines for the race, it was something like I'd never heard or seen before.
My mom and dad still have a picture of me there at the race and when I look back at it now, it's really neat," Kurt said. (Image available by request.) "There I am, way back then as a skinny little kid, standing in front of Rusty's (Wallace) pit area before the start of the race and posing in front of the Miller Genuine Draft pit box. My dad was a Mac Tools dealer and they sponsored Dale Earnhardt. We had our Mac Tools/Dale Earnhardt tee-shirts on and were having more fun than we'd ever had. We're standing there holding up Rusty's No. 2 pit sign. That's pretty cool to think about that day way back then and see how far we've been able to come."
--Kurt's first "big-time" TV interview came on Nov. 5, 1999 at PIR. "Our championship season on the Southwest Tour back in '99 will always be special to me and the Phoenix races were so important," Kurt recalled. "We'd finished 11th in the first race at Tucson and needed a boost in Phoenix during the second race. We started third in that race and ran up with the lead pack all day long to finish fifth. That got us going and three races later, we were able to win at home in Vegas.
"The momentum slowed down for our team about the middle of the season and we almost hit rock bottom after crashing out of the September Los Angeles street race," said Kurt. "But we regrouped and came back stronger than ever. We won four straight races and were looking for the fifth straight win in the final race of the year at Phoenix. Unfortunately, we got caught up in a crash during the race and finished way back in the field. The good thing, though, is that we had such a big lead in the points that we still won the championship by over 300 points.
"One of the major things I'll always remember from that race was when the dust had settled and we got all the media attention for winning the championship," said Kurt. "It was the first big national TV interview I did. Dick Berggren was the interviewer and I was pretty darned nervous, to tell you the truth. He did a lot to keep me calm before we went on the air and the interview went very well. I'll always remember that and be thankful to him for that."
--Trivial Tidbits: A notable feature of PIR is the presence of the "Hillside", a fan-favorite viewing area located on "Monument Hill" just outside of turn four. At the top of this hill lies a USGS bench marker known as Gila and Salt River Meridian that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long before PIR existed, this spot was the original land survey point for all of what later became the state of Arizona. The original surveyors chose this location to begin their work because it is the nearest high ground from the confluence of the Salt River and the Gila River, and offered a great view after only a gentle climb.