KURT BUSCH (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger) HOW DOES IT FEEL BEING WITH A NEW TEAM? "I was at Atlanta last week, and that was the first time getting back on track. I felt a little rusty. Everybody looked at me funny. Yeah, it means two...
KURT BUSCH (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger)
HOW DOES IT FEEL BEING WITH A NEW TEAM? "I was at Atlanta last week, and that was the first time getting back on track. I felt a little rusty. Everybody looked at me funny. Yeah, it means two different things, getting back into the seat and of course wearing the Miller Lite suit. It's been fun. Yesterday to see all the fans in the garage area, and fan walk and fan deck, everybody is waving and saying hello. I'm saying, 'guys, it's me, not Rusty.' Then they come up to the window and say, 'man, we're happy you're in the car.' It's been different already from that aspect of it. Answering questions to Roger (Penske), Roger calls me three or four times a week, and I have that relationship open up. There are so many new things, things that I look forward to. One comfortable thing I got done this offseason, I brought my spotter with me -- Jeremy Brickhouse. He's a nephew of Richard Brickhouse, the guy I think that won the first Talladega race. Having him in the spotter's stand is a sense of comfort and gives me a familiar voice when we head out on the track. Everything on the track has been about the same, sitting in the cockpit and driving the car, but everything around has been different, so it's been a good start to things."
COMMENT ON SWITCHING FROM FORD TO DODGE "That's been a unique element. I think the biggest difference obviously is the Dodge didn't have the success it want to last year, whether it was the lack of rear downforce or too much front downforce, so going to Atlanta doing a tire test for Goodyear was very beneficial for our team. I went to Lakeland and tested our short track car, and the difference between the short track cars is more the difference between the car owners and how they build cars. I guess you could say the difference between Roush and Penske, and everything was positive there. Things were positive at Atlanta. I was cording the right rear tires. Normally you cord the right front tire and blow those tires out. The Dodge was a little looser. It was cording the right rear tire. We'll make adjustments for that and do what we think we need to do for a full 500-mile race. At Daytona, I believe the Charger is going to be the car to beat when we show up for race time at Speedweeks. The Chevrolets might be fast in practice and they might sit on the front row, but I believe the Chargers, the way the Penske cars have been racing on the plate tracks, as well as Ganassi, it looks like Mears, the veteran guy over there for Chip Ganassi is going to be pretty tough as well."
COMMENT ON YOUR BROTHER KYLE'S SUCCESS "To see Kyle come up through the ranks so quick and be able to jump from one series to the next and act as he's belonged there all along... The ability to have that racecar feel, and I think he does a great job relaying the information back to the crew chief on how the car's handling and what it was like in the pack. To see him come up through the Busch Series and have the success he had there, to jump into Nextel Cup, and I think he sat on the pole at California in his fifth attempt to get a pole and he got it. That showed right away that he was going to be a strong force in his rookie season. To win two races, I think they were given the right credit. He won the night race in California and he won at Phoenix. I think that was motivation that he felt family wise. That was a true testament with what he's been able to do with racecars and his emotions. One thing Kyle and I always try to do is give good information back to the crew chief, and that stems from working with our father, Tom. We wanted to make his job easier when we were racing cars, so we told him everything the car was doing so we could work on it together. I knew from the beginning that he could be a strong racer and a force to be reckoned with and he's getting more and more comfortable. I expect great things from him this year. I used to see him in my rearview mirror. Now I'm looking at him through my windshield. There's a big difference, but it's fun."
YOU SEEM TO BE REALLY HAPPY. ARE THINGS THAT GOOD FOR YOU? "I am very happy. It's obviously very new and things are so different. When things are new it's easy to get caught up in the newness of it. You just bounce from one thing to the next whether it's racecar setup or whether it's different things with the sponsor. Going to Milwaukee so many times already, those guys have instilled some great qualities in me. You're exactly right. It's following the Penske MO of how the drivers are. It's not any type of confidence. It's not any type of I've got a chip on my shoulder. It's fun to smile and walk around with a Miller Lite suit on knowing the guy in charge is Roger Penske. It goes back to the conversation I had with him during the offseason. I don't want to do any appearances the morning of the Coca-Cola 600. He looked at me funny and was like 'kid, what are you talking about?' I go, "I want to go to Indy with you, dude.' So I'm going to go to Indy this May and hang out for the beginning of the 500 and then fly back to Charlotte so I can do the race that night. Just opening up the door with him and having that rapport, it's been great. I feel comfortable with it, but yet there's so much to learn. People like Deb (Williams) and TR (Tom Roberts) have helped me understand you don't have to be so up tight and loosen up."
WHAT IMPACT HAS PENSKE HAD ON YOU WITH THE WAY YOU INTERACT WITH PUBLIC AND MEDIA? "The biggest difference I've noticed already, I've got a Nextel phone and I had probably 180 numbers saved in there and during this offseason that number has jumped up to 230 and it's because people come up to me and it's opened doors for relationships. Talking with Don Miller, we're getting a couple of street rods put together, and I have to call him up to find out some of his parts suppliers. Ryan Newman, I called him up for some fishing tidbits because I was out on the shore of Virginia having some fun. The opportunity with Roger, he called me Christmas Day and said Merry Christmas. I was blown away. He says he needs me to go to the Super Bowl with him. 'Can you make it?' I said let me think about it -- OK, we're there. That's opened another door to talk with both of his sons -- Greg and Roger Jr. I've talked with them. I bought Eva a car through Greg. I think that was under Roger's direction. He said talk to Greg about cars. Roger is great. Don Miller and working with Tim Cindric, the guy from the open wheel team. He's now the General Manager at Penske Racing South. All the time I'm meeting the people and developing relationships with them whereas before it was just race the car, get in the car, make sure the sponsor is happy and go to the next race. Now I'm realizing there's more to it than just going around in circles and going fast."
COMMENT ON THE SOUTHWEST SERIES "I've got a great story that goes along with that. I'll try not to make it too long. It's tough to see the realignment of the regional Southwest tour cars, the Southwest Series. Late Models used to be a division where you could afford to race 'em, slap on a set of fresh tires and race 'em for a couple of weekends. Those days are long gone. The price has just elevated itself beyond a reasonable value of what you could race a Late Model for, but the Southwest Series was traveling around, going from Colorado to Northern California, Southern California, Arizona into Nevada. There were great racetracks that taught racers many different qualities. We would race on the speedway in Phoenix and the mile and a half in Vegas all the way to the road course in Sears Point. All those were Cup tracks. The Midwest Series wouldn't race on those tracks or the Southeast Series, they might have a chance to get on Kentucky Speedway, so the Southwest Series was very versatile. Back when I used to run three or four races a year were on TV. Those were big TV races and everybody showed up for 'em. The series just above that, the Grand National West Division, is now going to be pumped. I believe those cars are going to a composite body instead of a steel body. Because when you have a steel body car it takes too many crew guys to fix it every week and maintain. I think that's the reasoning why. I don't know for sure.
"The story I wanted to tell, Mike Wallace was racing Winston West and I was racing Southwest Tour. He won a race at Pikes Peak and now he's racing at the same racetrack I'm racing on. I go up to Mike, he's a big Nextel Cup guy and I want to go up and talk to him. I asked him how he won the race at Pikes Peak. His carburetor fell off or something. He came from two laps down and won the race. I just wanted to pat him on the back. He told me the whole story, and I told him that was cool. I told him I was a driver in the Southwest Series trying to move up. I asked him what he thought of the Winston West. I said, 'do you think it's a softer series?' As soon as I said that I knew I'd just kicked him in the rear end. Telling him he did a great job winning at Pikes Peak and then told him the series was soft in my next sentence. He said. 'who are you some arrogant punk? What number are you running tonight?' I told him I was running the 4 car. He asked where I qualified, and I qualified third. I asked him where he qualified and he qualified 22nd, but he said, 'I'm going to come and tear your door off.' Early on I learned I was phrasing things the wrong way. I was trying to find out if the Grand National West Series was the next step I needed to take and try to find a ride in that series or if I should throw my life on the line and go for a truck series ride. After the race Mike came over to me and said 'find yourself a truck series ride and we'll see what you've got.' At the end of that year is when I got called by Roush to race the truck at Daytona and I finished second to Mike Wallace in my first race. It was kinda fun."
HOW HAS IT BEEN WORKING WITH RYAN AND HOW CLOSELY TO YOU EXPECT THE 2 AND 12 TO WORK THIS SEASON? "I think it will take some time, but already I've seen movement out of some of the meetings. Matt Borland actually scheduled a meeting with Roy McCauley and Ryan Newman and myself and two engineers. The six of us had a little pow wow. I stayed quiet the whole time. I just listened and tried to absorb what the problem was, which was obviously Newman is a new school guy and Rusty is an old school guy. The two just clashed a little bit. When Newman would have good information and new things found by his team, Rusty was available to that, but Rusty didn't quite keep it in house, and I think that's the main reason the two didn't quite get along. Rusty has grown up in the Cup garage, and he's got friends like Mark Martin. He's got friends like Darrell Waltrip. He's got friends all over the place where they would just chit chat about setup. That's changed recently, and that's where the two I thing were somewhat imbalanced. My new crew chief and his engineering frame of mind, it's the new school way of doing things. Ryan and I have talked about that. It'll take some time to develop, but I've already seen some of the actions take place. They came back from their test here at Daytona last week and told my crew chief what they learned, what they saw and what they didn't get a chance to run. Here we are this week helping out with some of his setups and what he thought would work that they didn't have time to get to. We'll go to Vegas in a couple of weeks and just keep rolling from there. I don't see Ryan as a problem at all to work with. It's just a matter of blending into the program. Now with Penske restructuring and having an engineering-based group, I've got to step up to that program because I'm used to the old school with Jimmy Fennig, where he was the veteran and had things his way. It's going to be a great challenge for me to step up, too. Overall I think it will be better for the program once the two of us run parallel with one another. I don't see a problem at all."
LAST YEAR, WERE YOU SURPRISED HOW UGLY EVERYTHING GOT? "I was very surprised that it got that personal. With the way everything came about, maybe I could have done it a different way, but I thought the best approach was to notify him early on so they could get their sponsors lined up and do the things they had to do. I was a bit disappointed that Mark Martin had to stick around for another year when he said he
was going to retire. I don't know how that came about, but I thought Mark set a precedence to have his salute to you and what he had done for the fans over the years. I really thought it was a great way to go out and now he's back. It just kinda gets weird over there every now and then. I just look forward to driving the Miller Lite Dodge. I've got a trip to Milwaukee next week to learn more things about the brewery and their direction. That's where it will change over, and I'll be known as the Penske guy and move on from there."
COMMENT ON DENNY HAMLIN "With Denny Hamlin I was very surprised. He got a pole last year in the five or six starts he made. Just the maturity he showed, I didn't know him all that well from the Busch Series. Then he jumps into Cup and runs as competitive as he was running. It's a quality car, obviously, and it's got great people around it, but the kid's got to drive it and he did great. I would say going into this year that since my brother is not a rookie I'm bias toward Denny Hamlin for rookie of the year."
HOW NEW SCHOOL ARE YOU? "I think I'm new school enough. I grew up with a Ninetendo. I've got one of those laying around. Having the background I've had with computers, I took a little typing course in the eighth grade. My mom is a secretary and she made me. I took a word processing class to help create my resume for college in the ninth grade. I think I know computers. The programs I've seen created to help racecars and technology I've kept up with. I've got 'em downloaded on my laptop so that I can tinker with them and understand and try to throw in equations, but I am behind with the times with the way Penske operates. I'm always looking for challenges to expand my mind for one thing and to obviously get up to the level of Roy McCauley who has had success on the Busch Series level. Now it's time to see what we can do on the Cup level. It'll be a challenge. We'll see what we can do."
DID YOU TAKE IT PERSONALLY WHEN THEY CHANGED THE 97 TO THE 26? "I actually took it the opposite way. I thought it was an honor to have them retire that number or move it off to the side. I took it over from Chad Little. They kept asking me what number I wanted. I didn't really know, so we kept the 97 and took it from a non-race winner to a contender and then to a winner and then on to a championship level. I always looked at that little banner that Jeff Gordon had when I was growing up watching races of his checklist with Ray Evernham -- an upstart to a contender to a winner to a championship to a dynasty. So the number got retired quickly after the championship so it'll be a dynasty for a long time."
TALK ABOUT WHAT IT'S GOING TO BE LIKE NOT HEARING JIMMY FENNIG ON THE RADIO "I'm trying to come up with a nickname for Roy because he's switched on. That's what we call him. He's bouncing here. He's bouncing there, but he's got a direction. He has purpose to all of his calls. He is 180 degrees different from Jimmy Fennig. It's cute. When I first got over to the Penske shops, everything is wide open. The shop is huge and everybody's got their big desks and big glass windows. You could look in the windows and see what's going on except Roy's engineering room. I went in there and there were all kind of gadgets in there that looked like they belonged in NASA and the windows are frosted. I'm like, 'what did you do Roy?' He said, 'Yeah, Roger was about to rip me for that..' I'm like, 'so he doesn't like it?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'I'm going to call you frosty then.' He's kind of a big guy and he looks like a snowman a little bit and he's frosting windows. He's like a cannon ball really. He can bounce around and get things done pretty quick. He leaves a lot of damage behind but we learn a lot as we go. I think Roy is a great guy, and I look up to him and his experience level. With his voice on the radio already we've got a plan and things sound good. I just can't have him stretching me on fuel and tires like he did in the Busch Series in the Cup Series. I have to help with some of the experience level I have to balance him out and make him a better all-around crew chief."
DID YOU THINK YOU NEEDED TO MAKE A CHANGE TO BE PART OF A SMALLER ORGANIZATION? "I looked at the opportunity to drive for Roger in many different ways. The pros on his side and the pros on Roush's side, the cons and the cons. The balance of everything came together when Roush decided to do this consolidation. What that means is I used to have a guy who worked his way up through the food chain to hang bodies on a racecar, to have his own surface plate. That means a lot when you spend 12-15 years of your life working your way up through the ranks of a race team. He was my plate guy. He'd build me speedway cars and short track cars. He would build everything for me and then they said they were going to consolidate everything. He said, 'well, what am I in charge of?' He's in charge of right front fenders for all five cars. It takes away the identity of what that guy was trying to put forth into that team. My biggest lesson I learned from Jimmy was to be a team player. Even when I was on my way out over there I was helping Mark Martin. If you want to lead a lap, go ahead and grab your five points. I was trying to help them make their cars better because we were all in The Chase. It'd be great to see one of our cars win. A few things added up here and there and of course the relationships with the people could be different I thought, and they're turning out to be. It's definitely an eye opener to know you can have a relationship with the team as well as race competitively."