Kurt Busch is one of three Sprint Cup drivers to win his first career Sprint Cup pole at Darlington.
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), won both his first Sprint Cup pole and also his most recent Sprint Cup pole at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – the site of Saturday night’s Southern 500 Sprint Cup Series race.
In September 2001, Busch won his first career Sprint Cup Series pole with a speed of 168.048 mph to become the youngest driver to win a pole at Darlington at the age of 23 years and 29 days. Busch is one of three Sprint Cup drivers to win his first career Sprint Cup pole at Darlington. Ken Schrader won his first Sprint Cup pole at Darlington in March 1987 and Clint Bowyer in May 2007.
Busch also started from the pole at Darlington in 2004 as he was leading the Sprint Cup point standings when qualifying was cancelled due to weather. Busch led a total of nine laps while battling an ill-handling racecar, but survived to bring home a sixth-place finish. That sixth-place finish put him in position to win the Sprint Cup championship the next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Busch has led a number of laps at the track and, remarkably, has been running at the end of each of his 17 starts, boasting a lap-completion rate of 97.6 percent. While he owns some notable stats at the track that’s “Too Tough to Tame,” Busch still yearns for the most important stat – a checkmark in the win column. That missing checkmark brings to mind the race Busch came within thousandths of a second of winning.
It was March 16, 2003, and Busch was making just his fifth Sprint Cup start at Darlington. Busch had qualified sixth but had to start from the back after the team changed an engine before the race. Busch showed a patient, steady pace as he progressed through the field during the race. His first opportunity to take the lead didn’t come until the last round of pit stops. Sitting in third place, he watched drivers Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon battle for the lead, all the while closing in on the leaders.
Busch officially took the lead on lap 270 with only 24 laps remaining. A fast car allowed him to build a lead of three seconds. He was poised to run to the finish as the leader until a hard-charging Ricky Craven started tracking down Busch as the laps wound down. Complicating the situation for Busch was the loss of power steering on his car. As the race counted down to two laps to go, Busch and Craven started battling hard for the lead with the top spot being exchanged all the way to the white flag signaling the final lap.
To this day, the finish shares the top spot on NASCAR’s list of closest finishes in the sport’s history. Although Busch settled for second place, he doesn’t hesitate to refer to it as one of his greatest races. It’s a racing memory for the ages at a track that, appropriately enough, has been on the NASCAR circuit longer than any other.
While Busch’s win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in March virtually guarantees his No. 41 team a spot in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, he and his Daniel Knost-led crew certainly want to score additional wins to cement his presence in the playoffs. Busch is one of seven single-race winners at the season’s opening seven events, and a win this weekend would move Busch and the No. 41 team ahead of his fellow 2014 race-winning competitors in pursuit of a playoff berth.
In 17 career starts at Darlington, Busch has two top-five finishes and five top-10s with an average finish of 17th. He also has led 252 laps at Darlington, most recently when he led 69 laps in his last visit in May 2013.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 HAAS Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Did you do anything different last year to set the track record in qualifying at Darlington? “There are some moments when you have to step out of the ordinary to do something extraordinary. That was one of those times. I just went for it in qualifying and I wasn’t just trying to race the racetrack in qualifying, I wanted to attack it. It worked and we set the track record.”
What do you remember from your first Sprint Cup pole at Darlington? “Yeah, everyone told me that you aren’t supposed to hold it open all the way off of turn two. A couple of people were joking around and telling me that you just can’t do it. ‘You can’t hold it open off of turn two.’ I asked, ‘Why not?’ I told them I should be able to hold it wide open because turn two leads to the long back straightaway. So everyone was trying to egg me on to try and spook the rookie. So, to prove them wrong, I went out there and held it wide open and it stuck. I guess I got lucky.”
What makes Darlington unique? “Darlington demands so much attention and respect. It’s similar to a Bristol like that. It’s hard to get the setup perfect because both ends of the racetrack are so different.”
Other than the finish with Ricky Craven at Darlington, do you have any other memorable moments that stick out? “The biggest moment at Darlington I ever had was finishing second to Ricky Craven in 2003 – everyone knows that race. It’s one of the best finishes in NASCAR history. But, probably the next biggest moment would be during my championship run in 2004. I had an ill-handling car and still managed to finish sixth with it due to good pit stops. That was a perfect moment because it was our championship to lose with where we finished that day in 2004. That was back when Darlington used to be in the Chase.”