HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Nov. 18, 2007) -- Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch started fifth and finished second in Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That resulted in Busch, the 2004 series champion, ...
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Nov. 18, 2007) -- Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch started fifth and finished second in Sunday's season-ending Ford 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That resulted in Busch, the 2004 series champion, jumping from 10th to seventh in the final 2007 point standings.
The perseverance, patience and true teamwork displayed in getting from start to finish Sunday was definitely worthy of headlines. After all, Busch's position in the running order during the 267-lap battle on the 1.5-mile track had more ups and downs than could ever be imagined in yielding such a strong finish.
"It was a great run tonight for the Miller Lite Dodge," Busch said after the race. "We feel like we went out with a bang with this good car. We came up just a bit shy, but, overall, just a great season for us to win a couple races and be in contention at a lot of race tracks. We finished seventh overall; that's a nice feather in the cap. This team deserves it. We worked really hard and hopefully, we will carry this right on into Daytona."
Busch started on the inside of the third row on a beautiful sunny afternoon in South Florida. Even though he experienced a "just too tight in the center" handling condition in his car at the start of the race, he was able to inherit the lead for the first time on lap 48, when leader Matt Kenseth pitted for a scheduled green-flag stop.
Busch hit pit road on lap 50 for a four-tire stop that also included air pressure and wedge adjustments. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s spin on lap 51 brought out the first caution flag of the race and created an unusual scenario for the lap 58 restart. Nine drivers were on the tail end of the lead lap and lined up in front of leader Kenseth and the second-place Busch.
When Jeff Burton got into the rear of Earnhardt on the restart, Earnhardt's Chevy slammed the frontstretch wall, bringing out the second of seven caution flags. Several competitors, including points contenders Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, capitalized on the caution and were able to get back around the track and behind the rest of the lead-lap cars.
After the restart, Busch was able to clear Kenseth for the lead and put it on "cruise control" until Paul Menard's spin on lap 77 forced another round of caution-period pit stops. Busch's 14.314-second stop saw him fall to eighth for the lap 82 restart, with the top-four cars opting for only two tires on their pit stops.
As if that wasn't a big enough deficit to overcome, the situation became worse.
"All right, we have a bad vibration going on here," Busch radioed on his crew on lap 94 while running ninth. "It's only a matter of time before the wheel falls off."
Crew Chief Pat Tryson called Busch onto pit road on lap 99, with the team executing a 13.005-second, four-tire stop.
"The left-rear was loose," Tryson radioed back to his driver, as Busch was scored 34th, almost two laps down to leader Kenseth.
Kenseth dominated until the next round of scheduled green-flag pit stops began and he pitted his No. 17 Ford on lap 129. With the continuing sequence of green-flag stops, Busch was back on the lead lap after all of the lead-lap cars had pitted on lap 132.
Only a handful of laps separated Busch from running third and on the lead lap to having to pit and going down a lap again to the front-runners. However, teammate Ryan Newman spun on lap 149 to bring out the fourth caution flag and insure Busch his position on the lead lap.
Busch pitted on lap 150 for four tires, fuel and additional air pressure and wedge adjustments. He was eighth in the order for the lap 154 restart. Changes made on the car had Busch turning in the fastest lap times during the next 35-lap period and he was fifth when Penske teammate Sam Hornish Jr. smacked the fourth-turn wall to start the sixth caution period.
A 12.445-second, four-tire-and-fuel stop on lap 194 under the yellow had Busch back up to third for the lap 198 restart. Busch passed Martin Truex Jr. for second on lap 221 and focused on catching leader Kenseth.
Green-flag stops were again the story, beginning on lap 239. Kenseth and Busch both pitted on lap 244. When the stops cycled around on lap 248, Kenseth was battling with Truex for the lead, with Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards rounding out the top five, respectively.
Tony Stewart's turn-three crash on lap 254 brought out the seventh yellow flag and created a nine-lap dash to the finish. Kenseth led, with Truex second and Busch third.
While Kenseth scampered out to a nice lead on the lap 259 restart, Busch was slowed in having to get back around Truex for the second spot. Once he cleared the No. 1 car, Busch was able to cut Kenseth's advantage from 1.4 seconds to 0.0421 second with only five laps remaining.
Kenseth, however, would prove too strong at the end and he emerged the winner by 0.852-second over Busch.
"I felt like we had a legitimate shot at chasing Matt down," Busch said of the race's final laps. "I had to pass the one car [Truex] first of all. Once we cleared him it just seemed like Matt and I had a beam mounted with his rear bumper and my front bumper. I couldn't break that 10-car length advantage that he had. Not due to aero, just due to the fact that he was fast. The way that the race went all day he was the car to beat. We were a challenger and we came up a bit short. I thought we were going to give it our all and we came up in second place. The bump up in points was the bigger objective today and we were able to do that."
Busch's impressive runner-up finish did the trick, as far as the points were concerned. Busch entered Sunday's race in 10th, only 37 points behind the seventh-place Kevin Harvick, 33 points in arrears of eighth-place Jeff Burton and 11 points behind ninth-place Carl Edwards. With his finish, he climbed up to seventh in the standings. Now, he'll receive all the perks for finishing in the top-10 in the final point standings.
"To make the Chase this year and head back up to New York before New Hampshire, that made me realize how bad I missed it the year before, not making the Chase," Busch explained. "NASCAR spoils you and takes care of you and lets you know that you've achieved something special. To be able to go up on stage in New York and represent Dodge, and represent Miller Lite, and all of our associate sponsors is a big celebration. A lot of sponsors think that just making the Chase now is a successful season, but we want a bit more. This will give us an opportunity to talk about it and jump into 2008."
When asked about the 2007 season, which saw the Johnson-Gordon Hendrick Motorsports duo dominate the sport in finishing 1-2 in the points and winning 16 of the 36 races, Busch had this to say: "This year Hendrick Motorsports just seemed to come out of the gate stronger than anybody. The way that they performed during the Chase and to win that many races, you could consider it something that usually doesn't happen all that often. I don't think that the philosophy needs to change as far as how you approach the Chase. He just put together that strong of a run. It wasn't a boring Chase. It wasn't a blowout, but to see a guy win 10 races in one season, I thought that era was over. Jimmie should be congratulated. That team and just the way that they performed, they put together a stretch run that will probably never be matched."
While Busch was impressed with the incredibly strong performance by the Hendrick teams this year, he let it be known that his team certainly made much progress this year.
"We felt like this was a successful season for us at Penske Racing in the Miller Lite Dodge," Busch said. "We definitely had what we need at some of the races, then at some of the race tracks where we led laps, we just didn't seal the deal to finish off the race. Tonight, it was a great feather in the cap for our team. The great teamwork that it took to put together a very successful summer stretch to get into the Chase was fantastic. Everybody at Miller is ecstatic. We put together a good effort during the Chase. We could be stronger. We need to work on our COT program if we want to compete for next year's championship; that's the bottom line. We got a little taste of it this year, and the teams that ran well with the COT finished up front in the points. Next season that is what Penske Racing is all about."
Johnson won his second consecutive points title by 77 points over teammate Gordon. Clint Bower finished third, 346 points behind Johnson, with Kenseth moving up to fourth and trailing Johnson by 425 points and Kyle Busch fifth, 430 points out. Stewart was sixth, 481 points in arrears. Busch was seventh and trailed Stewart by only 11 points. Burton, Edwards and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-10, respectively, in the standings.
"It's been a fun second half of the season, spending it here with Kurt and our Miller Lite team at Penske Racing," Tryson said. "We've come a long way in a relatively short period of time, but we know there's a great challenge ahead. We have to tackle the COT program by the horns and get our strength up to that of the Hendrick teams. We have to get stronger in our pit road execution. We know we can come back in 2008 and be an even stronger team and that's our plan. I'm so proud of Kurt, all our team members, our great sponsors and everyone involved."
The remaining items on Busch's 2007 NASCAR schedule concern events he will be involved in during NASCAR Champion's Week in New York City. Busch will be among the 10 drivers to participate in the "roll" through the streets of Manhattan in the teams' show cars. Busch will also take to the stage during the annual NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Awards Banquet set for Nov. 30 in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel's Grand Ballroom.