NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus, held a Q&A session in the Daytona International Speedway infield media center during a break in testing for next month's Daytona 500. KURT BUSCH - No. 97...
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus, held a Q&A session in the Daytona International Speedway infield media center during a break in testing for next month's Daytona 500.
KURT BUSCH - No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS COMING BACK HERE TO DAYTONA?
"It's great to be back in the seat. I had the opportunity to stop by last week and check out the new facility and the way everything looked and it's phenomenal. It's state-of-the art and it's a continuation of the changes that are happening within our sport. To be a driver and to have an opportunity at this top level already in my career - to have a championship and to see this sport continue to change is wonderful. It's one page after the next and one day after the next. It seemed like I was in Miami the other day hoisting up the Nextel Cup and then I came back last Thursday to run the Rolex 24-hour race. We were set up for a practice session and I was a complete rookie all over again, so it's been a wonderful off-season for me. It was a great chance to reminisce with family and to reflect back with some past car owners and here we are, already back for Speedweeks testing. This is a good month for us to get caught up at the shop and to build the proper cars. We're gonna go out to Las Vegas and California Speedway to do some testing as well. So three days here and four days out west testing and that should get us in good shape for when we come back for our Bud Shootout car."
WHAT'S YOUR FRAME OF MIND TODAY COMPARED TO LAST YEAR?
"It's definitely different to be able to see the way that the crew is approaching the race car - the way we had everybody return on our team is a great feeling. To have the infrastructure still so similar to what we did last year, but yet to know that we achieved something very special. It enables us to walk around a bit lighter with our footsteps and just to smile and look at the other teams and to have different crew members addressing my crew members as champions. It's a nice feeling, so today is just a way to get back in the mode of things. It still is the same objective as it is every year and that's to go out and win the championship, but to have one under the belt is satisfying. It fuels you for a stronger drive and creates more ambition to come to the race track and to shoot for it again."
HAVE YOU LOOKED AT THE PITFALLS OF THE 17 CAR AND HOW DO YOU KEEP THE MOMENTUM GOING?
"We know we had an extraordinarily awesome year last year to obtain the amount of points we did in that small section of the playoffs. Just 10 races, that's all it takes. So we look at a new approach with this year and polishing on what we started as our championship run last year right here in Daytona. We look at what tests we have to go and perform well at. We look at how we're gonna build cars and we just structure the whole season right around the beginning of the year. With the way that the 17 seemed to struggle a little bit, they had an awesome year back in 2003 it's just that everything falls into place. That's what it takes to win a championship is to have your preparation meet those opportunities, whether it's out on the race track, whether it's behind the scenes. We know we had a great year last year and a lot of things fell into place. I'm very happy and very fortunate. Just to be able to be a champion is one thing and to be able to go and defend that title and achieve another one is something that we're going to strive for this year with that same type of drive. If things fall into place for us, we'll be around for the chase and have a good 10-race playoff and see what we can do again to obtain as many points as we can in the final stretch."
DO YOU THINK YOUR TEAM WILL BE TREATED AS A CONTENDER TO REPEAT OR WILL YOUR TEAM BE OVERLOOKED?
"One thing that's good about being a favorite is that the attention is always around you. You've got that same buzz and that same vibe all year. What I saw a little bit with the 48 car is it seemed as if they were the favorites. They were the ones that led the stretch going into the chase and they may have burned themselves out with having all of that extra attention. For us, we slid in under the radar. We attacked the last 10 races with a full stretch of tests. We tested nine out of the 10 races with some of them mixed in during the final 10 and we just kind of worked at our own program and worked at our own pace. If we're looked at as a favorite, we're still gonna have that same mentality to work at our pace and to not get too excited. I know I'm gonna get pulled in a few different directions with a few more requirements and things to do outside the race track, and that's what's already happened, but to get back in the seat and to feel comfortable again, it still gives you that ambition to go out and approach things the same way. But yet there are gonna be different people tugging at you and different things hitting you and you just have to roll with the punches. If you're a favorite, you're a favorite. If you're not, it's something that it almost feels better not to be one."
HOW WAS YOUR OFF-SEASON?
"It was a time where it moved so quickly, but yet everything was so planned out that I wish, and I still do have some time left just to kind of hang out on my couch and make sure it doesn't get up and walk out the front door. It was a quick off season. From the moment I left the banquet, I took the Nextel Cup trophy to Las Vegas with Brian France. We stopped off and did a big ceremony to my hometown crowd and it was great to see. About 2000 people showed up. It was a dreary, rainy day and they were there in downtown Las Vegas to see their champion. It was wonderful. To go straight there from to Tahiti, a vacation I had planned back in May. I heard there were some big waves that were gonna be coming through there, so I had to get out of there pretty quick, and it's a tough thing to see and a tough thing to understand what had happened to those people with the tsunami effort. If we're able to make a trip over there to see and to help and to give a hand, I think we're going to Washington, D.C. to work with the President on some things later on. That was a tough thing to understand and to grasp during this off season. My heart and my prayers and everybody that we have at our Roush Racing family sends everything that we can in that direction. I think we're gonna put something together with one of our charities, Rebuilding Together, which is obviously a perfect style of charity for something like that. That's something that's been going in my mind. Of course, the preparation in building the cars. To have Christmas with my family. We did Thanksgiving with my girlfriend's family, so we had Christmas with my family. We threw a party at New Year's and we used the Nextel Cup as the centerpiece and just had a great time - just kind of goofing off doing different things here and there. I rode four-wheelers so hard that I got some blisters on my hard and now it's time to go back to work. It's just one thing after the next, but we're smiling and we're having fun. It's just good to get the guys back into the swing of things because we're able to smell the race car at the race track again and it's comfortable again."
HOW CLOSE WERE YOU TO THE TSUNAMI?
"I wish I was better with geography. I know I'm on the northeast side of Australia, where Tahiti was, and I don't know what that nautical miles distance is from where most of the impacts were, but we weren't threatened by anything. I was just making a statement on how it hits you close to home when you're sitting over there. I could have ended up a statistic. It just really hit home when we were over there and heard what was going on. It wakes you up a little bit. You're from America. You grow up and then you go to vacation in a foreign country and something could have been taken away just that quickly. It's something that I don't really want to elaborate on. It's just that we were vacationing and departing on that day and then we were gone. We were leaving a couple of days before that, but just to have it hit home and know that we were in the vicinity..."
WHEN DID IT HIT HOME YOU WERE THE CHAMPION AND HOW DO YOU THINK PEOPLE WILL PERCEIVE YOU NOW?
"To be able to hoist it up and lose the champagne battle at Homestead, that's when it really sunk in - literally with all the champagne. The trip to New York, each and every day built up to the final banquet. Each day was just a progression of 'this is it.' And to hoist the trophy up in Times Square with my team there, that was one of those framed moments that everyone sees in history and that you can reminisce with past champions with. To go back to Las Vegas to see the crowd there. To come back and to go into a Hallmark store and it turns into an autograph session with people buying cards when it was around Christmas time. Just small things here and there start adding up. To come back today and to see Mike Helton and to have him refer to me as champ, it's here, it's now, it's great and it's time to go to work."
DO YOU THINK YOUR OPINIONS WILL MATTER MORE?
"I think my meetings in the Nextel hauler will be a bit more productive now, instead of more of a constructive criticism I'd say. Just to have this opportunity is something that humbles you. There's a great sense of pride that I feel with it and, of course, the honor to be a champion. There are a bunch of different ways one can go with things and I still believe the best way to go about things in life is to be yourself and to have fun. It's the way that people are perceiving it, but, to me, it's a great feeling to know that we are champions. We achieved something very special, but we can get bumped off at the end of next year. It's something that lasts a year, I guess. That's something I just realized sitting up here today. It's not just a race win where you get bumped off next week, it takes a year for it to happen."
HOW WILL THIS YEAR CHANGE THE WAY YOU'RE WITH THE MEDIA?
"That's something that I ran my head up against a concrete wall a couple of years ago with the different scenarios that arose and it just helped me become a better person and understanding the bigger picture and the objective. When you're in the seat, you work on the race car. When you're out of the seat, which is a split-second right after a race, there are things to do sponsor-wise, there are things to do Kurt Busch-wise, and I wasn't focused on the proper direction. I wasn't quite having fun with it. I still felt like I needed more from the race side to prove that I was able to belong here. It was a weird contract that I started with at Roush Racing and that may have been some of the wrong things I did early on, but just to see things in a different light. To look at video and to see what professional champions give as far as interviews, that was something I've looked at for the past two seasons. That helped me achieve the success that we did in the final 10 races last year as well as most of last year - just the way that I've changed some of my outlook. It's not as serious, but yet it's more refined."
HAS MATT GIVEN YOU A BLUEPRINT AS FAR AS WHAT TO EXPECT THIS YEAR?
"Matt was a great champion and the way he approached his title defense was one that we're gonna model ourselves after, but yet we can do some things a bit differently. I've had the opportunity to talk with Jeff Gordon. Dale Jarrett is a very well respected champion in my mind and, of course, Kenseth with him being a teammate of mine, it's very easy to discuss things with him. To see what he could have done better, we'll try that out. To see what Jeff Gordon has done with his four championships, with what Dale Jarrett, another Ford champion has done. It's endless the amount of things that you can pull from all of these guys. It's still about going and hanging out with my crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and being myself and going to the race track competitive and knowing that we've got an opportunity to win and we're gonna be respected as champions for the year."
IS THERE A BETTER CHAMPION THAN A REPEAT CHAMPION?
"That's what I sit on this stage right now thinking about is trying to be able to defend this title and repeat as a champion. That's what every driver wants to do is to win this championship this year. We definitely have the cards stacked against us. We're the ones that everybody is gonna be shooting at every week and that's one thing that will test our team's ability to rise above that and to see how we handle some of that pressure. But to be able to go out and to create an image around myself and what my sponsors are and what position I'm in in the rankings every week from week to week, it's stuff that will take care of itself. It's stuff that I'm not too directionally directing my attention towards, it's just a matter of understanding what the big picture is and that's trying to get my sponsors in Victory Lane and the next Nextel Cup."
WHAT MAKES DAYTONA SPECIAL?
"Number one, it's got to be the history and to be able to race at such a historic venue is something that's very special. To go over a few miles down the road and to see the beachside where they started NASCAR racing, it's right here, it's home. This is where stock car racing began and that's what makes this place so special. The way the track just tests your ability as a driver, as a car owner, as a manufacturer. To build the right car for Daytona is always a question. Did we do this right? Did we make sure that was taken care of? You always think you're leaving something behind, and then you go to California the next race or Vegas and it's like, 'OK, we're in the regular season.' It (Daytona) just has that special feeling about it. When you come into the gates here, there's that aroma about Daytona that you know you're in some place special."
LOOKING BACK, WHAT WAS IT LIKE THOSE LAST 10 RACES?
"That's a great question and this is a great time to reflect on that. It's tough to discuss during those final 10 what is right and what is wrong. You don't want to answer questions because you're in the points lead and you're pulled in so many directions and there's that pressure there. You don't know when your motor is gonna blow up. You don't know if your tire is gonna fall off. There are so many scenarios that run through your head the whole time. Now to be able to look back and see what our team went through one race at a time. To start off the chase with a win at New Hampshire. To have the final race to start on the pole. It was one race after the next where you felt like you were coming up to bat and you knew you were gonna get a hit. Now whether it was a double or a triple. Whether it was a pit-stop sequence that gained you a bunch of track position, our team just came together and gelled at the right moment. It's a wonderful feeling to know that. There are a couple of guys that were talking today that they felt something after New Hampshire like, 'We're going. We're gonna do it.' But you can't talk about it. You're not gonna discuss it with anybody. You can't let anybody know your true feelings because you might jinx yourself. We're a very superstitious bunch, race car drivers are, and you have to stay focused on keeping your mind on the race car when it's time and then during the week you've got to take time for yourself - to go out to a restaurant, breakaway, watch some other sporting event on TV, just to lose yourself for a little bit and then come back. Just try to balance out what it takes to handle all that stress at the end of the year because it was by far the toughest thing that I've ever done next to something that I've done before, which was the audition for the Gong Show. That's something that not many drivers have been through and that experience helped me persevere through the final 10 races in knowing what type of pressure I was under because I felt that same vibe when I was under that pressure trying to audition for that truck ride back in 1999. So that preparation helped me a little bit through the final 10 races."
ANY INTERESTING MOMENTS WHEN YOU WENT BACK AND TALKED TO SOME OF YOUR FORMER CAR OWNERS?
"The lead guy that helped me and propelled me to the Truck Series ride was my car owner in the Southwest Series, Craig Keough. I invited him to the banquet and he came to the banquet and was like a 12-year-old kid. He had never been to New York City. He's a business owner out of Las Vegas that has millions of dollars, but he was like a little kid. He was like 12 years old again. The sparkle in his eye when he was in New York. When we went to the Marquee Club on Thursday night, just him bouncing across the room. He didn't know anybody, but it seemed like he knew everybody. That was a moment for me to look back on what he did for me when I was growing up through the ranks of Southwest Tour or even late models before that. I had an affiliation with him back when I was running hobby stock, just a 3600-pound slammer stock going around Las Vegas Speedway Park, the little race track. To have the other car owners - Jerry Stillsbury with what he gave me as an education in the Winston West cars - now Grand National West. My other car owner that I worked with when I was in college. I went and blamed him that I was the one that didn't have a successful college run because my books were always laying on the backseat. Instead of working on them, I was always driving to a race instead of working on my books. So it was great just to be able to give back to them, to let them relish in the championship with me. For me to give something back to them. All the time and all the money they spent with me, they weren't worried about the money or the time, it was like they treated me as an oldest son. It was time for me to give back to them and it was the best feeling in the world in New York to have that."
HOW WILL YOUR ROOTS KEEP YOU GROUNDED DURING THIS TITLE DEFENSE?
"I'm very close to my family. They moved out to North Carolina this past year. They're getting themselves footed. Mom still goes back to Las Vegas to get her pedicures and to get her hair done. She's not feeling comfortable at all. That's the next stage for me is to make sure that they're the ones that recognize what they've done for Kyle and I. It's a great chance to have that piece of hardware sitting at home so that they can look at it as well. That's where I come from. I'm a family guy. I'm well grounded. That's definitely the foundation that I'll use to carry through this year. It's 38, 39 weekends of racing. We're here testing already. It's gonna be so much fun to be able to go to the race track. Already I'm reminded of what we did last year at this test, but yet now we come back as champions and we have a new approach. It's already begun to change things and how we look at it as a team, too."