It all started with an idea contrived in the No. 41 hauler last Friday morning at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Back at the racetrack for the first time since winning the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, the idea came to Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), as he explained to the team that there are just two Harley J. Earl trophies made each year – one each presented to the winning driver and car owner of the Daytona 500. Gene Haas, the listed car owner, shipped his to Haas Automation’s headquarters in Oxnard, California, where it will be displayed.
But Busch wanted to order replica trophies for crew chief Tony Gibson, sponsor Monster Energy and others. Unable to do that, he came up with the idea of sharing his trophy with his teammates and others, as is the tradition with the trophy awarded annually to the National Hockey League championship-winning team, The Stanley Cup.
Lord Stanley’s Cup is first presented on the ice to the captain of the winning team after the series-clinching game. Each member of the team then gets a turn to skate around the rink with the trophy hoisted high. For the next 100 days, the championship-winning team gets to keep the Cup in its possession for parades, sponsor functions and other celebrations. Beginning with the New York Rangers in 1994, a tradition also began wherein each member of the winning team is allowed to retain the Cup for a day.
So, Busch begins his self-proclaimed Harley J. Earl Trophy Tour this weekend when he takes it to his hometown of Las Vegas, the site of this Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. Thursday, Busch and the trophy’s first stop will be Durango High School, where he will be inducted into the Las Vegas school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Along with his Daytona 500 trophy, Busch will also have a replica of his No. 97 Ford Taurus with which he won the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series championship. A period-correct hood will be raised to the rafters to commemorate the occasion.
On Saturday, Busch will take the trophy to Star Nursery, the sponsor that adorned his car when he drove in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour back in the day. Busch ultimately parlayed his success driving Craig Keough’s No. 70 car into his championship-winning NASCAR career. From there, Busch plans to leave the trophy at Monster Energy’s corporate headquarters in Corona, California, where it will be displayed for employees and customers alike.
Just two races into the 2017 season, Busch is already enjoying the most successful start to a season of his NASCAR Cup Series career. With a seventh-place finish Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch finds himself ranked second in the point standings. He’s looking forward to earning a little more hardware Sunday in the form of his first winner’s trophy from his home track. While he has yet to score a win there, he certainly has put his best foot forward when it comes to qualifying at Las Vegas. Busch has started outside of the top-10 only four times in 15 starts, and has a pair of poles, scored in 2010 and 2016. He’s confident that this year, with Ford horsepower under the hood of his No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Fusion, he’ll be finally be able to find his way to his hometown victory lane.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Talk a little bit about how the plan came together to take the Harley J. Earl trophy on a Stanley Cup-like tour.
“We came up with an idea Friday morning in Atlanta. I realized that there are only two trophies from victory lane at Daytona, and you cannot get a replica of the trophy. Gene Haas has his from the breakfast afterward and it is now in Oxnard, California, at the Haas Automation headquarters. My trophy is at the race shop right now. All the crew guys have been taking selfies with it and other pictures of it and they had a toast the other night with it. I am going to get the nice carrying case that goes with it and I am going to send it out on a tour. I am going to turn our Harley J. Earl trophy into the Stanley Cup. It will make events here and there. I wanted to get replicas for Ford, Monster Energy, for myself and whomever is significant enough to get a replica. But they only make two. That is what is so significant and powerful about this trophy. The first visit after the SHR race shop will be to Las Vegas, so the fans in my hometown can see it, and then it will go to Corona, California, so it can hang out in the Monster headquarters for a little while.”
What does it feel like coming back to Las Vegas?
“Vegas is different. It’s our hometown and we grew up racing on that little three-eighth-mile bullring that is in the shadows of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Every time I go out there, it reminds me of all the people who helped Kyle (Busch, brother) and I, especially our dad Tom. But the different Late Model teams, modified teams, the Legend car races, and all the competitors, the Dwarf car days. It’s just fun to come back and reminisce. But, ultimately you’ve got to strap on the helmet and focus on the task at hand. It’s always special in Vegas.”
The West Coast swing of races at Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Fontana serves as a pretty good indicator of where a team stands. How important is that slate of races?
“The West Coast swing is a perfect gauge for how your work went through the off-season, whether it’s the wind tunnel, the chassis dyno, new development, and then the team, as far as how the pit crew is performing. Those races on the West Coast swing really can put a stamp on where you are, what needs to be done, and what weaknesses or strengths we have.”
There are a lot of logistics involved in the West Coast swing. What do you do? Do you stay out on the West Coast or do you commute like you would to other NASCAR races?
“I stay on the West Coast. I call in to the team call-ins. Ashley (Busch, wife) likes to drive to the races out West. So, it’s just a nice, old-school road trip, going from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles and making the best of it. We stop at some of the scenic spots – Grand Canyon, there are the beaches out in L.A. So, it’s a fun, cool West Coast trip.”
Of those venues that you mentioned, is there an area of the West Coast that you like to visit, have to visit, when you’re out there?
“My hometown of Las Vegas, going back there to see family, friends, and restaurants. There’s this old-school place where we always used to go get pizza when I was a kid. It was just great to go back to the roots and reminisce. It gets you back to where everything started, going to Vegas.”
You can’t test like you once were able to in January. So how do you, as a driver, adjust to a change like the one that has been made at Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2017 season?
“It’s because the teams have more depth. There is more simulation. The engineering staff has gone through things at a much higher level, whereas it used to be the driver and the crew chief who would go to the track and then come back with a notebook of things. Now, the notebook has been gone through by the lead engineers and they’ve prepared it as best as possible before we show up. Limited track time saves money but, at the same time, you end up spending it on personnel and hiring the key guys to make the cars safer, faster, stronger, and I know we’ve done a great job to transition with Ford because I’ve seen some of the drawings and the way that Doug Yates has the engine set up. We had to change a few of our suspension settings to adapt to the way he had his engine set up, so there might be a couple bugs here or there, but I’m not too worried about it. We’ve got really good, quality people at Stewart-Haas with Yates engines.”