This Week in Ford Racing NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Sharpie/IRWIN Ford Taurus, finished second to Ricky Craven one year ago at Darlington in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series history.
This Week in Ford Racing
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series
Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Sharpie/IRWIN Ford Taurus, finished second to Ricky Craven one year ago at Darlington in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series history. Busch, who goes into this weekend's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in sixth place in the point standings, was a guest on Tuesday's national teleconference.
KURT BUSCH - No. 97 Sharpie/IRWIN Ford Taurus
WHERE ARE YOUR EMOTIONS A YEAR LATER THINKING BACK TO THAT RACE? "That race, obviously, was something that will forever be a special moment in my heart and many of the fans that follow our sport. To be involved in a finish of that magnitude it takes time. Over the year now I've told that story a few times. Maybe if I get up to 2,000 times of telling the story I'll gain that two-thousandths that I've been behind the whole time. It's really been a fun way to explain a finish to people and by no realization did I think I lost that race. I thought I was part of something special. To finish second to Ricky Craven in such a great battle really doesn't give it enough value to finishing second. I think it really counts as a win in my mind and to be part of something that special. For everybody that looks up the record books it'll be two-thousandths-of-a-second, but maybe by the year 3000 I'll be ahead."
HOW COMFORTABLE ARE YOU AT DARLINGTON? "It's a track you for surely have to understand the racing groove and it's a place where you have to attack the race track and not the other drivers. You have to make sure that you don't burn your tires off because the Lady in Black will for surely penalize you if you do. What I mean by that is that the track is so slick from being built back in the '50's, they didn't really build it for the 180 miles an hour that we're carrying today, so it's a unique place of old history, speed, and of course the way that you have to race the race track. It for surely puts every driver in his own mindset."
WHAT IS THE ONE THING THAT STANDS OUT ABOUT THAT FINAL LAP? "So many elements led up to that last lap. With the day in general and being in a position to win is obviously a great testament to our team and a team effort put forth. One thing that sticks out and that kept us away from victory lane had to have been the way our car didn't turn and it didn't have its power-steering capability. I had to fight that and I had to give everything that I had as far as an effort from my body mentally and physically to try to get into victory lane. One thing that sticks out in my mind overall is that I gave 100 percent and that I put out everything that I had onto the race track to try to get to victory lane and I have no regrets from it. I thought I had done the best job I could have, the crew did a fantastic job, and for us to finish second in such an epic battle it really didn't feel like a second place finish. But the thing that stands out is that I gave everything that I had and it was choreographed in such a fashion that Ricky Craven gave everything he had in a way that it looked like the two of us were staged to produce something like this and nothing forever crossed our minds of doing anything like that. It was just two racers giving it all they had at the end of a race. To come away in second place didn't really mean that much to me because I thought that we had won."
WHERE DOES THAT RATE AS FAR AS YOUR CAREER? "It ranks high amongst different finishes in my career. Whether it's in the previous Winston Cup or even with our great NEXTEL Cup start this season, each race has its own agenda and has a lot of different value within it. In 2002 I was able to win three out of the last five races and I group that stretch of races as a high achievement in my career. But to finish second in an epic battle that translates into the closest finish ever recorded in NASCAR history, it ranks in that top five of values of whether you win a race or whether you have a stretch of races or a championship level, that type of race really ranks among the highest finishes that I have."
HAVE YOU EVER HIT A SOFT WALL AND WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON THEM? "I was actually the first one to impact NASCAR's soft wall. It might not have been NASCAR's, but it was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tony George installed those walls for the IRL-style cars and I was the first one in NASCAR to hit one of those and it was a complete, I don't know, it was just a savior to end up running into one of those. You never really want to be one that goes out and tests for them, but I was the first one to impact it at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you can for surely see the difference on any of the test models that NASCAR shows you as well as the way my body felt the day after. Any type of race track needs these soft walls implemented because of the way that they are able to protect a driver and to cushion a blow. The speeds that we're carrying at some of these race tracks is mind-boggling and if there is a mistake out on the race track due to another driver or a mechanical issue, you need those soft walls in place. Darlington is a track where we run right up against the wall, but you have incidents on the inside of the walls as well. Steve Park had an incident there a few years ago, so every wall needs to be protected with these new soft walls. Kansas is no different than any other track. That's a great race track that is beginning to mature and we'll see some side-by-side racing there in the future. When you have that, you're gonna have drivers running side-by-side and the possibility of running into one another and running into the fence."
HOW DO YOU THINK THE FIELD WILL REACT TO A NEW GROOVE AT DARLINGTON? "There is for surely gonna be a different groove at Darlington. Over the years, I can't remember the last time it was repaved. I want to say 1994, but maybe it was '92. That provided for such great speeds. The asphalt was fresh and you could drive anywhere on the race track. Now there is that much more of a restriction on the racing groove because of the soft wall. I was down there last Tuesday for the winner's circle program that NEXTEL puts on and I noticed that the transition into the corner and onto the exit of the corners there's no difference. The wall tapers back down to the regular concrete and it's the same finish. The only part we're gonna have a problem with is in the apex of the corners. When you're racing side-by-side, mainly on a restart, cars are gonna have to be more generous with one another as far as the outside groove to the inside groove. There's gonna have to be more give-and-take. But once the cars get spread out, I don't see much of a difference. In qualifying when we've got those fresh Goodyear Eagles underneath us, we should be able to stick any place we go and the speeds won't taper all that much."
YOU SEEM REALLY UPBEAT? "It's just a fresh start to a year because 2004 has a lot on the horizon for the 97 team. With Newell Rubbermaid as our sponsor. There are actually two co-primary sponsors with Sharpie and IRWIN Industrial Tools and both of them are owned by Newell Rubbermaid, so there are a lot of different things outside of the race track including charity work with some of those sponsors. Plus the fresh body that Ford was able to produce over the off season, there's a great new look on our downforce, the new spoiler, the new tire, even the new engine program at Roush and Robert Yates Racing, there's just so much unknown every time we go to a race track. It's just like my rookie year all over again. I'm very upbeat and willing to learn all the different elements and have to apply them to the race track."
DOES YOUR ATTITUDE HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH KYLE RUNNING A LIMITED SCHEDULE? "It is fun. That race in Las Vegas was the first chance where we've raced against each other since 1999. It was short-lived, but yet it went into the history books - the two Busch brothers from Las Vegas, not even remotely close to the base of where our sport was built. It's not really a stat. It's not a top-five. It's not a win. It's part of history with having the Busch brothers taking their first start together in Las Vegas."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR TEAM AND BECOMING CONSISTENT? "We've had great runs in the past. It's been a process to put the program together to where it is today. I came to the 97 program, it had run for three years and had one top-five. So coming in with a fresh crew chief and a whole new set of - I don't know what you would call them, but just different governing rules and downforce and understanding a car versus a truck - there was a lot to adjust to. Having Jimmy Fennig come over in 2002 has really helped the process move along quickly. For us to be championship contenders in 2002 to winning four races that year to four races in 2003, we've won eight races now and we feel we're an established team and one that can get to victory lane on any given week. Now it's a matter of building that consistency into the program. Last year, we had some races at the end of the year where we had a flat tire, we had a blown motor, and then we got wrecked at the last race of the year just running in the high groove and that took us out of the top-10 in points. So things that we can do, we've implemented some things on the motor side to develop more horsepower and more consistency. We've developed more checkpoints you would say with building the cars and understanding what process goes before another. That would build more consistency into the mechanical side of things. And then as far as the driver side of things, I don't need to be running the top groove come lap four so we don't get wrecked and that way we can stay a bit more consistent with our points effort and then with our finishes from week to week."
DO YOU HAVE ONE TRACK YOU WANT TO TEST? "Richmond International Raceway has always been a tough place for me. Jimmy Fennig has had past success with Mark Martin, so we're gonna go test there. We're gonna test Texas Motor Speedway, so those two tracks will really give us a good guideline for tracks that are similar to those. Texas is very similar to Chicago and Kansas, and you can even fit Miami into that for the final race of the year. Richmond is one of those races where it's the 26th race of the year, so we're gonna have to be on top of our game if it comes down to us squeezing in the top-10. But I believe with the way the team is jelling together and with the way the pit stops have been - we actually won the pit crew competition in Las Vegas. We've had excellent pit stops and now we just have to adjust a little bit better to this new Goodyear tire and we'll be ready to rock and roll."
DID YOU GET A CHANCE TO LOOK AT CRAVEN AND SEE WHAT HE WAS DOING DOWN THE STRETCH AT DARLINGTON LAST YEAR? "I wish I could have reached over and took his foot off the pedal and that way we would have had that extra inch or two at the end. The whole race had a great feeling for us as far as the way our pit stops went and the way that we were able to make up time later in the run. That's what it takes at Darlington is a car that can excel in the latter part of a tire run. For us, we got the lead about 30 laps into that last run from Jeff Gordon and we pulled away. I thought we had it in the bag and then the power-steering began to fail. That led to the final lap where Ricky Craven and I bumped and banged and thrashed each other's doors, and noses to bumpers and bumpers to doors. You name it, we were everywhere. Coming to the line I was on the floorboard as hard as I could be with my right foot. I looked over and glanced to see where his windshield was versus mine. I thought I might have been an inch ahead and to see the final outcome it was tremendous. It was a race that we lost, but I felt as if we won at the same time."
WERE YOU BOTH SAWING ON THE WHEEL? "I was trying to catch up with mine. I got sideways coming out of turn four and with no power-steering you actually have to move the three-quarters of a rotation more, so I was too busy trying to catch up with the wheel. That's how I ran into his door and he wanted to take that same piece of real estate away from me to make sure that he was in front, so it was just a great battle with two drivers throwing it all out on the line."
HAS THE SEASON GONE ACCORDING TO PLAN? "For us it's been a steady start - nothing spectacular or nothing dismal at all. We had a great car at Daytona, where we were able to run with the leaders, but we had to make an unscheduled stop and that held us a lap down the rest of the race. With the way that NASCAR and the yellows played out at Daytona, we weren't able to get our lap back so we were relegated to a 16th-place finish. But the crew knew how strong that car was and the two months that went into preparing that car really shined. That led us to Rockingham, where we qualified poorly. We got a bit loose with the new spoiler and tire and we made adjustments for that in Las Vegas, where we qualified second. We had two top-10 finishes in a row with Rockingham and Vegas, and at Atlanta we had a great car at the beginning of the race, but we didn't make the right adjustments throughout the race with this new tire. Now we've understood a couple of things about qualifying, about race conditions, and about adjustments that we have to make for this new tire. We should be ready to rock and roll at Darlington to try to back up that great finish we had there last spring."
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE NCAA TOURNAMENT? "This is the time of year where we know our season is just beginning to get into full swing and now the NCAA Tournament begins and then baseball will start. It's a time of year where so many sports are in transition now. I look to see the Pac-10 do well. That's what I'd like to see in the basketball tournament and I'd like to see the ACC struggle. I don't know what it is, but growing up out on the west coast, the ACC (Duke) downed UNLV back in 1991 to repeat as champions and in 1997 my Arizona Wildcats won the championship. That was a proud moment in my following of college basketball, so it's a tournament this year where I'm gonna see Duke actually play Arizona. I'm thinking that Duke is gonna beat the number 16 seed and Arizona, ranked number nine, is gonna beat the number eight team. The two are gonna play in Raleigh while I'm gone in Texas, so hopefully it'll be a great battle with Arizona coming out on top and Stanford doing well for the Pac-10."
HOW DO YOU FIND TIME TO ENJOYING STUFF LIKE THAT? "It is a tough circle that the NASCAR series is going through with different changes from traveling to west coast states more often to the point system to more media outlets. There's so much that a driver is required to do. It's easy to maybe find an hour each day, but with spending anywhere from 12-16 hours a week at the shop and with our three days at the track, you just catch highlights here and there. I've been following the Arizona Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament for many a years and, of course, my cursed Chicago Cubs. Hopefully, this year can be the year."
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE TIRE AND HOW IT'S WORKING SO FAR? "They've been fairly consistent from set to set and that was one question that the 97 team had in our minds. With being a new construction and a softer compound, how were you gonna be able to blend the two together? And Goodyear has done a fantastic job with that. The Daytona tire was a tire where handling became more of a key, instead of just overall speed. That's what separated the pack at Daytona was cars that were able to go fast. With that you had more pit stops and it seemed like the teams that were able to adjust to that were the 8 car and the 20, the 97 as well as the 23. So we were able to break away from the pack. At Rockingham, it seemed like it was the same characteristic tire, where you had to be able to adjust to the track's changing conditions as well as the tires being cooked off the car by that rough southeast asphalt in the sandhill regions of Rockingham. Vegas provided for a great race with our car struggling on a long run. We were good on the short run, but at the end of the race it came down to a 60-lap run and we struggled with that. So those are changes we'll have to adjust to. Atlanta provided for a great race. Cars that were on were fast and cars that were off went a lap down early. That separates the good teams from the teams that haven't tested with this new tire as much. We're actually gonna get involved with a test next week at Texas Motor Speedway to try to get a little better handle on this tire."
Darlington Raceway recently completed its installation of the SAFER barrier system, which will extend approximately 30 inches from the permanent concrete wall in all four turns. Ford drivers Matt Kenseth and Ricky Rudd gave their views on how the racing groove will be affected on a track already considered one of the trickiest on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule.
MATT KENSETH - No. 17 DEWALT Tools Ford Taurus
"It's definitely gonna be harder to pass than what it was before and it was already really hard to pass. It's gonna make it a lot easier to get in the wall. There's a lot less room to work with and I'm really curious to get there and see it. I was a little dumbfounded that they did that there. I thought that would have been the very last place on the list we would have done. I'm all for safety and I'm all for making every track safer, but that's the last one I would have thought of because we run right up against the wall anyway. Usually when you run around the wall, you don't hit it very hard. I don't know. I think it might create some problems. It's gonna be really difficult and you're really gonna have to pay a lot of attention."
SO PRACTICE BECOMES EVEN MORE CRITICAL ON FRIDAY? "Yeah, it's kind of the same for everybody pretty much. I don't think anybody has tested, so it'll be the same for everybody."
RICKY RUDD - No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Taurus
"Of all the tracks to lose almost three-feet of groove, Darlington is the one that you needed three more feet in addition to what we already had. You're just gonna have to slow down entering the corner and you won't be able to run the same typical line you've always run. It's gonna make things really crowded, but it'll work out because it always does."
SOME FEEL THAT DARLINGTON SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE LAST TRACKS TO INSTALL THE SYSTEM. "If you prioritize race tracks anywhere that you're running close to the wall - like Darlington where you run right on the wall - if you have trouble like cutting a tire or something breaks or there's a wreck, you're right there at the wall so you don't have any energy to gain when you hit the wall. At tracks where you're far away from the wall, those are the ones that hurt you. What you gain by putting soft walls in, you definitely handicap yourself with the racing groove. It's gonna be different and it'll be just like starting all over again."