Talladega may be crapshoot, but Martinsville remains equally risky for the Stewart-Haas driver
Kurt Busch has endured a love-hate relationship with Martinsville Speedway.
In his first start on the half-mile paperclip-shaped oval in 2000, he started 40th and finished 37th. Busch showed little improvement during his next two starts. But in 2002, Busch posted his first top 10 in the spring and won the fall event.
Busch’s first Martinsville victory was well-timed and cathartic. His paternal grandfather had passed away earlier that week. When Busch received the iconic Martinsville trophy — a grandfather clock — he named it "Albert" after his grandfather.
That was the driver’s second career Sprint Cup win. He won the following week at Atlanta and again in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Three victories in the final five races elevated Busch from ninth to third in the points standings in just his second full-time season on the tour.
Two years later, Busch was crowned the 2004 Cup champion — in NASCAR’s first Chase.
On Tuesday, Busch visited with media at Martinsville Speedway, a pivotal track in the current Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“It’s been a fantastic season — statistically one of my best ever,” Busch said. “All of that is from the hard work at Stewart-Haas and (crew chief) Tony Gibson, a great guy who has all of his crew members assembled from long ago. These guys have been together for almost a decade, and it’s great to have that team camaraderie and the chance to win every week, whether it’s a qualifying session — to try to sit on a pole — or trying to go and win the race. Stewart-Haas and this Haas Automation team have been strong.
“Right now we’re plus-13 points ahead of the cut-off heading into Talladega. And that’s the best news, the fact that your name has a plus next to it and you’re not in the minus points as far as trying to gain points next week to catch up. A lot of hard work, but it’s been a great season.”
Under the radar
Busch is currently third in the Chase standings. With an average qualifying effort of 10th and average finish of 10.8, it's the most consistent season of his career.
While this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway stands between 11 drivers (points leader Joey Logano has already advanced) and the remaining seven spots in the Eliminator Round, Busch believes that Martinsville will be equally precarious. He believes a team has two strategies — "go for the win or go for consistency." This season, the team has benefited from the latter.
"It puts everybody’s nerves right on that edge. If you can get through those two weeks, then I think you have a shot at it."Kurt Busch
“It’s the great unknown coming up in the next two weeks, with the restrictor-plate race and the short track,” Busch said. “I think it puts everybody’s nerves right on that edge. If you can get through those two weeks, then I think you have a shot at it.
“Once we come here, there’s only four races left, and we hope we’re Chase-eligible. You have to go through each section of the Chase with a game plan. When you come to Martinsville, it’s a fresh slate, it’s the beginning of a round. You want to have a nice, solid finish, to have a top five, to help you get through the next couple of races after that.”
One track at a time
Traditionally, Martinsville hasn’t been one of Busch’s best tracks. Of the 23 tracks currently on the Cup tour, it ranks next to last in average finish for the driver of the No. 41 Chevy (21.1). But Busch knows that posting a top-five finish there — as he did at Martinsville in the fall when he won the title — could make a difference.
“One track shouldn’t intimidate you to take away your shot at a championship,” Busch said.
Twelve years after winning his first Martinsville clock, Busch won his second. One stands in his trophy room, the other in his den. From a career-standpoint, the second was a turning point for the driver. He was just six races into a fresh start with the newly-formed No. 41 Haas Automation team.
The victory showed Busch not only what he was capable of at Martinsville — a track where Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines have won seven of the last eight races — but what he could accomplish at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“To have that win right away, in my sixth race with Stewart-Haas, with a new crew chief in Daniel Knost... we hit the setup perfect that day and we raced Jimmie Johnson for the win — which validated it,” Busch said. “It wasn’t like it was a surprise win or a pit strategy call or fuel mileage, we really had to race hard to win that race.
“Sometimes when you win early in a season with a new group it can cloud the overall effort. I think that somewhat happened to us to where we thought we were winners, but we still had a lot of work to do to help the team mature and to grow into championship form. That’s why we made the change at the end of last year to get with Tony Gibson and his group of guys and make this 41 car as successful as it has been this year.”
With three races remaining in 2015, Busch aligned with Gibson and worked out of the No. 10 transporter which had been the base for Danica Patrick. His average finish in those races were 8.6.
This season, in just 28 starts, Busch has already surpassed last year's total with two wins, three poles, 10 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes. He’s led 765 laps compared with 220 in 2014.
But the biggest difference in Busch this season is the confidence he has in his crew.
“To fit in with Tony Gibson and his group of guys, it's allowed us the platform to be a top Chevy team and go to the track with a shot to win," Busch said. "That's what it's all about. Knowing you have a shot to win is the best feeling in the world.
"Now that I’ve been in the sport for 15 years, it’s tough to have that feeling every year when you go to the track.Thanks to Stewart-Haas, we’re in that position right now.”