Phoenix: Ford - Kurt Busch interview

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Rubbermaid Taurus, is the hottest driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit with two wins and a third-place finish to his credit in the last three races. Busch, who has moved from 11th to fifth in the point...

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Rubbermaid Taurus, is the hottest driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit with two wins and a third-place finish to his credit in the last three races. Busch, who has moved from 11th to fifth in the point standings over the last four weeks, held a Q&A session prior to Saturday morning's practice session at Phoenix International Raceway.

KURT BUSCH --97-- Rubbermaid Taurus

WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD BE A SUCCESSFUL SEASON WHEN YOU TESTED AT DAYTONA IN JANUARY? "Starting off a new year you've got expectations of many different ideas and different goals and, of course, accomplishments and with what we had in our rookie year -- it was such a dismal year -- I thought it would be very easy to improve on. Of course, working through the off season we had some changes and Jimmy Fennig came aboard and we had a lot of different crew member changes. So, behind the scenes, we were a whole different team structure-wise, but we still had the same outside -- the number 97 Rubbermaid Ford. We had a new paint scheme, but things were gonna turn around. I could just see it right away and with that test in Daytona, having Jimmy Fennig's experience on the way that we approached the test, the way that the cars were prepared, we brought two brand new cars down to the test and we just went after it. It was really neat to work with his experience right off and it made me understand how much I had to learn and it took me a while to get up to his level, but when I did that, we were competitive and decent every week. We qualified real well early on and we still have yet to get that pole that's gonna put us in the Bud Shootout to help us prepare for Daytona next year, but, of course, we ran real well. We've made some mistakes, but we've been able to put together a strong run here in the late part of the season. But the beginning of the year was just a whole new breath of fresh air and a whole new outlook on what we needed to do."

HAS IT EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS? "I'd have to say it has. Not many drivers would give themselves good grades. They'll always say that there's room to do this and there's for that. I'd say that we've had an 'A' season. It's a great year for us with the way things have progressed internally and, of course, on the race track and results-wise. To have three wins at this point and be a contender in the championship somewhat, and to make it through that month of August that we had, it's a sign of the strength of the team on how nothing wants to get us down and how we always want to go forward. Last year it was a tough year being a rookie, but this year I think we've exceeded our expectations and we just have to stay focussed on what the job is at hand and that's getting exposure for the sponsors and, of course, getting the good finishes."

DO YOU LOOK BACK AT THE YEAR AND HAVE SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN? "At this time I think the Rubbermaid Ford could have won five or six different races and could have been in a points championship battle, but it wasn't our time. There are times that you do things to win races and times when you have a shot at championships, but there's a learning curve that you go through. This year wasn't a waste at all, it was a great learning curve and the way we've been able to apply our knowledge to the second half of the year from what we learned in the first half, it wasn't our time to compete for a championship. With us being fifth in points and a shot at being in the top three, that's obviously the goal -- to move up every week and give it the best shot that we can and to help prepare for next year. Whether we live up to it or not next year, that will be known when the time comes, but we'll carry this momentum right to where we need to and that's applying pressure and finishing up front every week."

YOU'VE PASSED RUSTY AND JEFF IN POINTS RECENTLY AND HAVE RYAN AND JIMMIE IN FRONT. HOW DOES THAT FEEL? "It's neat to be in a position to gain points every week, to be able to finish well and gain points. Whether you pass the likes of Jeff Gordon or Rusty Wallace or Ryan Newman or Jimmie Johnson, it feels great just to be able to know that your team as a whole is better than they are as far as where you're at in the points situation. But, of course, I think every driver you look at is about the same when it comes to the points position, but it means a heck of a lot when you pass the guys that have been champions before and the guys that have built this sport to what it is today, and to be able to compete with them. Last week we raced Rusty Wallace. He was a lap-down car and we were on the lead lap and it was a great competition between us. I talked to him today in the garage area and it's a spite between us because he wanted back on the lead lap, but yet I had to keep him down so we can gain points on him. It's neat to be in a challenge and it's great to be in a position like that to where you're intellectually challenged on what you have to do points-wise to finish in front of these guys instead of just beating them on the race track. So it's a wonderful balance of old and new as of late with the drivers and, of course, everybody is trying to get up to the top position in points. So it is neat to pass the likes of Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace and to be able to compete with those guys week in and week out."

WHAT'S IT LIKE WORKING WITH JIMMY FENNIG? "He steps up anytime there's a challenge that's given to him. The way I've seen him approach building race cars, whether it's a short track car or a speedway car, he shows up on Friday morning with a plan. He gets that car through tech, he gets the car set up to where it's very universal for anybody to drive it. We have so much adjustability built into the car, we're never pinned up against a certain situation. Whether it's too soft of a spring or too big of a swaybar, there is room every which was to turn for adjustment to get that car right. It allows me to do different things with the car on the race track. It's not like we're stuck running the low groove or we're stuck running the high groove. I think you've seen the Rubbermaid Ford in just about any lane that it takes to get into Victory Lane and I prefer the high groove where we can keep the momentum built up. He's understood that with me and we make changes for that. With Charlotte, we had a bad finish there but we had a great run leading laps. Martinsville, we were in the high groove, Atlanta in the high groove, Rockingham in the high groove, Phoenix might be a place where we try again in the high groove, so we'll see how it shapes up. It's great going back and forth and being able to have options because we understand one another so well."

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU AND JIMMY TO COMMUNICATE? "That's a really good question. Some crew chiefs and drivers get along from day one, some get along never and sometimes it takes a season of success to help the two understand one another. I went into the Daytona test because that was the first time we were at the track in our normal situation working together and I was intimidated by him because I didn't know as much as what he did. I knew I had to step up to his level and with that test we went onto Las Vegas. That's the end of January and that's a regular type race track for us. It's unrestricted, we're able to slide on the edge of tire cohesion and we're able to work back and forth on what springs and setups were right. We brought a brand new car there, something he didn't tell me about until halfway through the year, and it had a different front snout on it -- it had a different front clip to it and the car would drive very oddly. It had a characteristic that I hadn't felt before. It would be in a tight condition, but yet the car would be in yaw quite a bit more than the other cars. It's very technical. I was trying to explain it to him and he's looking at me knowing exactly what this car is supposed to do. I'm explaining it and telling him to watch me on the race track and to watch what it does. And after I came back in from that practice session, he told me exactly what I was telling him what the car was doing and then he explained why it was supposed to do it that way. So from then on, we had that relationship of he knew what I knew and I know what he knows and it's gone back and forth so smoothly now. It was like that was a test, but yet he didn't know the final answer. I had to give it to him. He was looking for me to give him the final answer on that new chassis configuration."

DO YOU HAVE A HANDLE ON THIS PHOENIX TRACK? "I've raced here many a times -- I raced here five or six times with the Southwest Tour, once with the Trucks, this is my third time in Winston Cup. This is by far one of the most fun race tracks to race at and I don't say that just because it's a west coast track and it's close to home. I say it because it's a one-mile oval that's flat and you can race side-by-side on it. You can do a lot of different manuevering as far as getting a high groove in one and two and the low groove in three and four. There are many options. It seems you have to be in a specific place at a specific time to generate a good lap time. Of course, that's key in qualifying and being able to conserve tires during the race. I haven't quite had the finishes here that I think I deserve, but yet you've got to go out there and earn them. It's a track where I think I need to get better. I've raced here many a times and you'd think I'd have understood it by now, so this is where I think Jimmy Fennig's experience will help me this weekend and we should be able to post a good top-five finish or compete for the win."

AS A YOUNG MEMBER OF ROUSH RACING, HAVE YOU HAD A DIFFICULT TIME GETTING YOUR VOICE HEARD? "I think the toughest thing to find is the right timing to voice your opinion. Being young and fitting in with the meetings, it's different for me to grasp what goes on in such a professional organization, so it's taken some time. Of course, now with some wins my voice holds a little bit more volume to it and with the way things have progressed, it's great to have the meetings that we have. I think we've had at least four now this year where everybody is there -- all four drivers, all four crew chiefs -- and we're able to sit down and talk about issues. If Mark brings something up, the other three of us add input to it and when Jack brings something up, Jeff takes the tall stand on what should go on and it filters down from there. Being able to put in ideas and to give feedback and help make an influence on changes within this company, it makes me feel part of the company. It's like a two-way street -- you've got to have their input and they have to have mine and I feel like we've made that connection now in the second half of the year. Going through my rookie year last year, there wasn't much. At the beginning of this year, I let Jimmy Fennig speak and now we've been able to run like we've been running, so now I think my voice holds a little bit more opinion to it."

WHO DO YOU FEEL MOST COMFORTABLE WITH GOING TO FOR ADVICE AMONG YOUR TEAMMATES? "I can't say there's one that stands out more than the rest of them. The answer might surprise you a little bit, but Greg Biffle and I seem to have a chemistry between us. Whether it was that Craftsman Truck Series season we spent together or it's the fact that we drive very similar styles on the race track. So having different springs in the car, different bars and the way that we drive, that might be the most comparable thing. But I go to each of the drivers equally. Matt Kenseth and I are closer in age and we seem to get along well when it just comes to shooting the bull and talking about different things within the company or different things about a race track. Jeff Burton is a specialist in short tracks and in structuring people internally within the organization. And Mark is a great road racer and speedway racer and you get his ideas on what he's done in the past. So you try to utilize the best quality of each of those drivers and I've somewhat just blended them into the way that I think."

ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO 2003 AND POSSIBLY CONTENDING FOR A TITLE? "It's somewhat unique in how this will be my third year in Winston Cup and that's the most years I've ever spent in a racing division. I spent one year in trucks, two in the southwest tour, and maybe legend cars is the series that I spent the most time in just because that was the only thing my dad and I were able to afford. It's great to handle that type of pressure. I love the weight being on my shoulders and, of course, with the Rubbermaid colors being up front next year, hopefully contending for that championship, I don't think we'll be bothered too much by it. Jimmy Fennig has been in this position many times and I just get excited about it because I know that we have a shot at it. I know that we can put runs together to gather up points quicker than other teams and to give the Rubbermaid Ford a shot at the championship level."

HOW WAS THE CREW CHIEF CHANGE PRESENTED TO YOU? "A brief short history with it. Last year at Atlanta I didn't make the race due to poor qualifying efforts and mechanical failures that dropped us out of the top 25 in points. We didn't have any provisionals to get into the race. I think that sparked the commotion. Obviously, it's uncomfortable not making a race. Then we had that Loudon make-up race the day after Thanksgiving and from there I drove straight to New York for the banquet to do things for Rubbermaid and Sharpie and all of our sponsors around the New York area, and it was that week when I got a phone call from the general manager saying we're gonna swap things around. I saw the painting on the wall and knew there was a change in store, and I guess I felt lucky at that point that I had a job. But I knew that Jack was committed to me and helping me understand these race cars more thoroughly. So it was a bit of a surprise, but yet I knew it was coming and it was great with the way it ended up. I saw immediate impact on January 1 when I went to Daytona to test."

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE AMOUNT OF HORSEPOWER BEING GENERATED? "Yeah, I think the way the rules have been mixed up this year with losing qualifying engines, for sure it closed the gap. Why I say that is Roush Racing was a bit behind and we were able to close that gap early in the year and we've somewhat maintained that throughout the year. We know that there are some other teams out there with better power, but I think we've got the best overall package. There are different chassis out there and I think we can compare it somewhat to open-wheel type cars with a Lola chassis and a Cosworth chassis and different things that teams have. I think if you just throw them all into a bunch and round out the average of things, I think Roush Racing has got the best combination of what it takes to win races and so far we've been able to prove that. Matt Kenseth has the most (wins) and with our shop -- the 97 and 17 -- having the most wins, it feels great to have that and, of course, we know what we need to work on and, if we can make that better, we'll be that much better next year."

-ford racing-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Rusty Wallace , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson