Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus, won both NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series events at New Hampshire International Speedway last season. He held a Q&A session before Friday's practice session to talk about going for three and a row,...
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus, won both NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series events at New Hampshire International Speedway last season. He held a Q&A session before Friday's practice session to talk about going for three and a row, along with other issues.
KURT BUSCH - No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Taurus - WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BACK HERE? "Loudon is a good place to get things started, whether it's the chase or whether it's a solid run to the chase. With our season half over, the race track here has a great deal of importance just with the mental aspect. With it being a different style of race track, it lends itself to a variety of winners, of setups, and of different approaches you could say. So with our success on the flat one-mile ovals in the past, we're looking forward to this race weekend to get things kicked off - just like we did last year. We're 10th in points, the same position we were last year - 10th in points. I don't know how far we were out last year, but I believe our car is running better this year with the races that we've had, and then the bad finishes that we've had, that's what has put us back to 10th-place in points. So this is as good a place as any to get things started, plus we're up against that threshold of trying to break through for three in a row at Loudon. Nobody has ever done that, so that's a goal for us short-term this weekend. But, obviously, long-term consistency is what's going to lock us into the top 10."
HOW IS CARL EDWARDS AS A TEAMMATE? "Carl's been great to help mentor. He's always come up with good questions and he's always willing to take time out of his practice session to come over and look for advice, whether it's from myself or Mark Martin, of course we have Kenseth and Biffle. He's a character that runs good at all different styles of tracks. This one is as similar as it can get to Phoenix in one aspect, and then Richmond has some small qualities that you can share with this place, so I just go back to information that he knows and try to help compare. That's what I've done with my little brother and some of the other young drivers that come up with some questions. You just go through their knowledge bank to understand what they know and then help them compare the different places to one another."
WHAT FEATURES DISTINGUISH NHIS AND WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO FOCUS ON ON SUNDAY? "In the past, especially the last year of 2004, we just worked on our race setup. We thought the changes they made to this race track at the beginning of, I think, 2002 when they resurfaced the track and changed the banking around to where you could maneuver way down by the yellow line if you had the right setup. That would enable you to solely work on race setup and not necessarily worry about qualifying. We struggled a little bit in qualifying, but with our race setup it uses the four tires the best way that it can and we're a car that will run competitive lap times from lap five to lap 65. It's not like we're going out there fast and blistering off 20 good laps and then struggling for 40. Our car does really well. It's consistent and it's smooth for 65 laps and that's the key here because there usually aren't a lot of yellows, so you have to have a car that's set up for the long run."
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT WINNING THREE IN A ROW AND MOVING UP IN THE CHASE? "Looking at the points, we came into this race last year with the same passion - 10th in points. We questioned why we were in this position in points. We've had some great runs. We've had some bad runs. It's always great to go for three in a row and that's obviously the objective. Wins now carry more of a prize because they give you those 10 extra points. When you have a chance to lead most laps, that's another five. You lead a lap and you get, so that's 20 points right there if you're able to have a strong car. Twenty points right now, I think, would put us sixth in points and away from that 10th place, but I think consistency is obviously the key in the next eight races for us to get locked in - to have that same momentum run carried into the fall Loudon race. But that three in a row is something that's very appetizing for us to go and try to achieve this weekend. We're definitely not gonna lay down short, and it's a different procedure this weekend because of the impound. We've got a few things to balance out and we're definitely gonna run our car the best way that we can."
HAVE YOU TALKED TO JAMIE MCMURRAY YET ABOUT 2007? "I haven't actually had the chance. He's always that slap-happy guy. He kind of grabbed my rear end a couple times in the garage area recently. I guess to try to bud up and create that open door to talk about different things. Right now, I know he's working on his program and we've had our program that we've been working on, so not a lot of time to talk to McMurray yet. We're just waiting to hear what the story is gonna be. Is Mark Martin gonna be there or is McMurray gonna be there. Either way I think they're both great drivers. One obviously has a proven status within the sport and another one is working on it."
HOW MUCH DOES THE CHASE WEIGH ON YOU THIS TIME KNOWING IT'S THE FIRST CHASE RACE IN THE FALL? "The first objective is to balance out the new impound procedures and understand that we're under race setup for 90 percent of practice now and qualifying is a small 10 percent of it. Last year, though, when we came for the fall race I think qualifying was rained out and we started seventh or 10th. Then in the July race I think we started like 27th, so it's a different balance now with understanding the impound procedures. With this race you always have to focus knowing that it's gonna be a chase race, so any race that we do in the regular season you're always taking extra notes and paying more attention to those races because they're part of the final 10. So this race is very important. It leads off the final 10 races, so it adds that much more importance I believe."
HOW DOES YOUR WIN HERE SET THE TONE FOR THE REST OF THE CONTENDERS? "Internally, it was the best boost you could possibly get. It's like putting nitros in the carburetor - away you go. We ran ninth, 10th in points. I think we led the points at one point last year, but we went in seventh in points - just a little bit under the radar, taking it cool - and we knew what we had from the first Loudon race in July, and then as far as our tests the way everything lined up for Dover right after that, and then you roll into Kansas, Talladega, Martinsville is another flat track that we think we're gonna run well on. So it's something that sets the tone for the team internally. The crew guys, when they jump over the wall they get pumped up. They have that adrenaline running and when you can think about less when you have to do your job, it seems like you have better results. So if we can have everything in the same fashion again when we show up in September, that's definitely more that can help us try to win the championship and defend this title."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE TIRE SITUATION RIGHT NOW? "It's definitely an interesting time with our spoiler change, with the tire change, and showing up at all of these race tracks under a new procedure when we practice, which is the impound. So you have teams that are searching for one setup versus another, trying to deal with the new spoiler, trying to deal with softer tires. I believe the tires are to a point where they are borderline when we first show up at a race track. What I mean by that is tracks are green, they're very abrasive, and they chew up the tires. Then we have long runs during the race that we don't do during practice. So what's happening is we'll run 15-20 laps in practice and have problems with our tires. Then we'll get into the race and when you have 43 cars out on the track, that helps fill in the race track and it's not as abrasive on tires. But then what happens is now you have to run 60 laps on a set of tires and people are finding those problems during the race and they're not able to find them during practice. We've had a bunch of weather this year to wash the race track clean at some of these tracks, and then with the softer compound and everybody right on edge, it's leading to some of those tire problems. People are trying to run excessive camber, trying to help their program keep up with another group of cars. I can say that group of cars right now is Roush Racing. We've always done a good job with managing our tires and trying to not abuse them, and that's forcing other teams to try their hand in different areas and they may be a bit too aggressive on this soft tire. It's so many different combinations. It's hard to point at one, but I definitely think it's made racing better this year."
THOUGHTS ON RETURNING TO POCONO WITH THE TIRE ISSUES FROM LAST RACE. "It's a matter of each team helping NASCAR understand the problem. They've already made big adjustments at the race track. They helped fix the tunnel turn problem, where they put in a nice roll curb that we're familiar with seeing at road courses, and helped smooth out that bump and that transition that was giving the drivers problems in turn two. Like last week at Chicago, I would say 90 percent of the teams scuffed in their tires to put a cycle on them to make them more or less a harder compound. That's what happens when you scuff sets of tires, so learning that in Chicago, Goodyear knows that. They might recommend that we should scuff our tires to help with that problem as well as recommend taking some camber out of the left-front tire because those are long straightaways when you race at Pocono."
WHAT WILL YOUR DRIVING STYLE BE THESE LAST EIGHT RACES? "The best way to explain it is a lot of guys say you have to be cautiously aggressive or however it may work. I don't know how that works. The way to go about it is consistency. That's the bottom line. Right now, we've had a great race car at all of these race tracks. We've been competitive. We've got stats right now that are comparable to be third in points, but we're 10th overall, which means we haven't been consistent. We've had problems with running into other cars on the track because some guys swerve to miss cars coming onto pit road. We've had flat tires, so on and so forth. Consistency is the key, so I believe it starts right now if teams want to get in the chase. It started a while ago for some other teams that were further back in points, but, Dale Jr., he's got one win and I believe he's 13th in points. Right now he's running off a two-race consistency run. Two races can change a lot for everybody, so that's the way you have to approach these final 18 races more or less."
HOW HAVE YOU CHANGED OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS AS A DRIVER? "I've definitely grown with age and matured with experience. When you start out I was more or less a late model guy when I was thrown into the trucks. Six months later I'm still a late model guy racing trucks, but I was thrown in Cup. Jack said we were gonna make some mistakes and we're gonna have some hard lessons, but let's go do it in Nextel Cup. I was like, 'OK, let's try this out.' And I'm a late model guy still trying to go straight to the front, lead the most laps, I think they're 100-mile races and I ran over a bunch of people trying to do that. Then I picked on the class bully and we saw how that went (chuckling). I was like, 'Well, maybe we should take a backseat on this deal.' It's just that first impression that you make with people sticks for quite some time and it's been tough to move past that with the different questions that still come about. Let's say I go to a media market such as Memphis, Tennessee to go testing. They'll approach me and say, 'Hey Kurt, you're the aggressive racer that runs everybody over. You've got this and that going on.' It's like, 'That was three years ago, but I'll still answer your question.' It's fun to help bridge the past to the present and how I've changed as a driver out on the track. I'll still run into fans that will come up and say, 'Wow, you're a really nice guy. I had a wrong perception of you.' Or I'll talk to a media member from a different city or a different market and I'll here them talking to my PR guy or my agent saying, 'That was completely off our story that we were trying to make about him,' as far as being the hard-nosed racer that runs into everybody. It takes a whole different focus to win races in Nextel Cup than it does in any other series. My little brother is starting to notice that now. I've tried to help bridge that for him, and when you're able to run competitively and can finish consistently, it leads to bigger and better things. Then when those things lead to bigger and better things and you're still not known for anything, then you still get to talk about your past. So it's been a fun bridge to cross over and to be one of those guys that can now race competitively with the other veterans and they can trust me out on the track, and to run consistently in the top five. Then what we did last year during the chase - a wide open format. We approached it with just an under-the-radar approach and got nine top 10s out of the last 10 races and we came away with the championship under the new procedure. That's what it took, so it's just understanding how to race the race car at this elite level. I raced it too hard at the beginning and now I've been able to bring back my passion a little bit and turn it into consistent finishes."
HOW DID WINNING A TITLE LAST YEAR ERADICATE YOUR PAST SO PEOPLE HAVE A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE OF YOU? "One thing I noticed when I first came in is that I thought results would take care of an image or take care of the camaraderie that you would have with other drivers in the fact that they could trust you, knowing that you run well. I learned that that was wrong. With the championship I don't think that fixed anything with being able to bridge some of those past problems and fixing those and changing it all around and that winning the championship was gonna cure everything. No, it doesn't. The relationships that you develop over time. The way that you race with drivers and continue to grow to gain experience. You just can't show up and be a veteran. You can't show up and race these cars without experience, and you definitely can't race on the track with the other 43 competitors unless you have a relationship with those drivers so that they can make your day a little easier when the time comes. That's something that I learned from Mark Martin and from the other drivers running in the top five - that not every lap is the last lap. That's one thing that I've changed. I think the perception within the garage area is beginning to form a bit differently and I go about my races definitely in a different manner, so it's helped in many aspect with the championship, but yet going through those hard lessons as well."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE GONG SHOW AND YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THAT? "It was one of the toughest things I'd ever done in life and that was to audition for that truck ride - to have the pressure. Five of us were there. You had to drive the truck. The mock-up interviews. The different things with communication to the crew chief and the other observers that were there. It was probably the biggest pressure cooker I'd ever been in until the chase last year, so that may have helped prepare me for what happened in the chase. But to be involved with it still and see these young kids come in, and to recommend some of these kids to the Roush Racing group, and to see four or five of these guys and see what kind of program they're putting them under with the TV and the cameras being there all the time. It's like a reality audition such as American Idol. That's what's going on with this program that Roush Racing has put together for these kids coming through the Gong Show. They might come up with a better name for it later on, but it's definitely a tough situation for these drivers to go through. They're making it real tough on them to see if they can handle all this pressure."
ARE YOU STILL INVOLVED WITH THIS AUDITION PROCESS? "I like to try to help review some of the drivers when they're out on the track. We're going to Martinsville, I guess. We're gonna go to Darlington and test a couple of groups of drivers. I believe that they'll have Todd Kleuver and Ricky Craven do some of the lead follows. They're doing all kinds of TV things with this. I've sat down and done two hours worth of interviews already with the Discovery Channel."
WHAT KIND OF EMPHASIS DO YOU PUT ON YOUR FACE BEING THE IMAGE OF NASCAR? "It's great to go out and represent our sport as the champion and to do different types of media shows, to do the different PR events within our sponsors. Our sport is heavily rounded around our fans. We wouldn't have our loyal fans go out and support our sponsors if the drivers weren't able to go out there and communicate to those fans what this sport means. Some of the other sports the athletes might take it for granted - that baseball has been there since the 1800s or that the NFL will still continue on no matter who is involved with what. But the NASCAR drivers help this sport continue to grow because we know we still have more work to do, where the other sports might feel like they've reached their peak and the athletes might just want to sign a contract in their union and stay separate from the owner's union in their sport. In NASCAR there's no union. We all work together as one and I think that's obviously the best tool that we can have to help promote our sport is all of us working in the same direction. So they help the champion with certain things and then the champion has to go and help NASCAR with certain things."
WHAT DID YOU LEARN A YEAR AGO THAT WILL HELP YOU THIS TIME AROUND BECAUSE YOU'RE IN THE SAME POSITION? "It's just one phrase - not to panic. When you have things go wrong on pit road or when things happen out on the track that don't go in your favor and you get bumped back 10 positions, so be it. There is still a long distance to still race. There are more races that lead up to the final cutoff. There are so many things that come into play now that mean patience and not to panic and to make sure that your homework is done in advance. We've already gone through our testing program through the summer months to get ourselves ready for this stretch and then we have, I believe, five tests still saved for the final 10 events. We won't go and test at some of the tracks that we run good on, so that leaves maybe one or two tracks that will be in question for us that we have to approach with - if we finish 10th that's fine. We're not gonna stretch it to try to finish fifth and hurt ourselves and end up with a blown tire. So we're very conservative as far as our setups and sometimes that leads to victories."
IS THIS TIRE SITUATION MORE OF A GAME NOW? "I talked to Mark Martin about it a little bit this week. Edwards was there in this conversation because we unveiled our Ford Fusion for next season and into the future and we talked about different tires blowing out. Edwards said, 'Wow, that was my first tire blowout.' Mark just starts laughing, kicks his feet up high. He's got his hands behind his head and said, 'Son, I've blown 50 tires and hit the wall 50 times harder than you did - 50 times.' It's funny to see the stories come about and what the past used to be and how they had to deal with the different tire compounds back then being too soft or going to a different manufacturer and trying something different. NASCAR found that to be a problem, so they've obviously gone to one tire manufacturer, which has eliminated probably 90 percent of our issues that we could be having right now. So with a soft tire out on the track right now, with new drivers coming in and old drivers still there racing their setups, and then you have new setups. Right now there is so much change in our sport to be competitive and to be on top that you have to continue looking for those setups. Sometimes that will abuse the tires in a wrong fashion. Right now, to stick yourself with a veteran crew chief like I have - with Jimmy Fennig - that's the key to do things successfully."
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR YOUR BROTHER IN THE OXFORD 250 THIS YEAR? "That was a fun race last year. I went up with Matt Kenseth and the two of us raced, and just to be able to compete in one of those prestigious late model events is fun. I grew up out on the west coast. You would see some of the drivers from the northeast come out to what was the biggest event out west - which was the Copper Classic. Kyle understands that and he's gonna go up there and race with over 100 of the best late model racers in this region, and you can't take anybody for granted. No matter what you hear from one guy to another it's a big event it's a big show and people would give their right arm to win that race, so, hopefully, Kyle comes back with all his body parts intact."