Kurt Busch was a 19-year-old aspiring racecar driver when he first competed in a stock car at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in 1998. He was a rookie on the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour and in just his 13th career start and first on a road course, he finished third after qualifying 19th for Yahoo! Sports 200.
A year later, Busch was back at Sonoma working to exchange his rookie-of-the-year title for a championship crown. He qualified third, led 31 of the 64 laps and promptly won his first road course race amid a six-win season that earned him the 1999 Southwest Tour championship.
It was a pivotal victory, for it happened on a rare companion weekend with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Car owners and crew chiefs in NASCAR’s top division were on hand to witness Busch’s impressive drive, and one car owner in particular took notice.
Jack Roush, the veteran Ford team owner, decided to host driver auditions for his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team. Busch’s Sonoma performance, combined with a run of four straight victories in the Southwest Tour’s final six races, earned him a spot in what became known as “The Gong Show”. Busch wound up winning the competition and, only months removed from his Southwest Tour championship, was a rookie again in the Truck Series driving Ford F-150s for Roush.
Busch began that 2000 season by scoring a second-place finish at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway in his first Truck Series start. He scored his first Truck Series win July 1 at The Milwaukee Mile and then added three more victories before the year was out, including two from the pole. In his rookie season, Busch finished second in the championship standings.
Although it was only one season, Roush saw all he needed to know that Busch was a star. Less than a year after hiring him to race in the Truck Series, Roush announced that Busch would succeed Chad Little as driver of his No. 97 Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series. Barely a year after running Late Models on the Southwest Tour, Busch took over for Little in the final seven races of 2000 as he prepared for a full-time Cup Series effort in 2001.
Twenty-nine wins, 21 poles and one NASCAR Cup Series championship later, Busch returns to Sonoma as a 17-year Cup Series veteran intent on adding to each one of those statistics.
The Save Mart 350k Sunday at Sonoma will mark Busch’s 17th Cup Series start at the 1.99-mile road course and his 592nd career Cup Series start. At Sonoma alone, the driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing has a pole (2006), a win (2011), four top-threes, seven top-fives and eight top-10s with a total of 197 laps led.
Busch’s seven top-fives at Sonoma are the most of all active Cup Series drivers, and his 2011 victory was dominant as he led four times for a race-high 76 laps, including the final 23 with a whopping 2.685-second margin of victory over second-place and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
Busch has remained strong at Sonoma earning two top-twos, four top-fives and five top-10s in his last six starts. His only finish outside the top-10 was 12th in 2014.
That Busch is successful at Sonoma is not surprising. The Las Vegas native has proven adept at road courses throughout his career.
Between Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International – the series’ second road-course stop – Busch has 32 road-course starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. Collectively, he has two poles, a win, 10 top-fives and 15 top-10s with 262 laps led (197 laps led at Sonoma and 65 laps led at Watkins Glen). Busch has completed 3,092 of the 3,213 laps available, earning a lap completion rate of 96.2 percent.
Busch swept the poles for both road-course races during the 2006 Cup Series season. He won the pole at Sonoma in June to score his fifth career Cup Series pole and kept his quick pace at Watkins Glen in August to earn his sixth career pole.
Additionally, Busch has three NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Watkins Glen (2006, 2007 and 2011). He started first in each of them, won two of them (2006 and 2011) and finished third in 2007. In these three races, Busch led 98 of the 250 laps available (39.2 percent). He also has two Truck Series starts on road courses – Portland (Ore.) International Raceway and Watkins Glen. Both starts came in 2000, with Busch finishing 11th at Portland and second at Watkins Glen.
This road-course success was sown in Sonoma, and while Busch’s career has grown immensely since that crucial Southwest Tour triumph 18 years ago, he returns in 2017 with the same hunger that drove him to that first checkered flag.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
We just came from Michigan International Speedway where terms like aerodynamic downforce and clean air versus dirty air were often heard. How much are you looking forward to a road-course race where those terms aren’t really a factor?
“I really enjoy the road courses and yes, there’s not much of an aerodynamic problem as far as clean air and dirty air goes at Sonoma. It will be great to go left, go right, go up and down the hills and shift gears, then at the end of the race it’s just all-out chaos.”
How has road-course racing changed over the years?
“The way that we respected each other on road courses early in my career is out the window. It feels like it’s rip and gouge and take all you can get at any moment. In a way, it’s a shame that some of the respect and putting on a bit of the collared shirts and class is gone, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win.”
Are road courses the new short track when it comes to tight racing and short tempers?
“It definitely seems like it’s easier for payback at the road courses.”
We used to see supposed road-course ringers show up at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, but that’s pretty rare now. Why do you think that is?
“If you’re a good driver and you want to be in the top tier of NASCAR, you’ve got to drive well everywhere. The road courses were a bit more of a specialty back in the day and you used to be able to take advantage of the guys that didn’t put forth the full effort in the road courses, but not anymore.”
You’ve proven to be a pretty good road-course driver. Was it something you took to right away or did you really have to work at it to enjoy the success you’ve had?
“I really enjoyed it right off the bat. I thought it was fun and different and I worked at it to develop the skills that I have in Legends car races and Late Model races. I even went to the Bob Bondurant Driving School. My first professional type of road-course race was in the Truck Series. I jumped right in there. (Greg) Biffle won that day and I beat Ron Fellows.”
You mentioned that racing Legends cars was how you were first introduced to road-course racing. Where did you race?
“Legends racing was big in the mid-90s in the desert southwest and they would let us run on the infield road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as well as the exterior road course there. We also ran road-course races at Buttonwillow (Raceway Park) and they had a street-course race in Los Angeles and they raced up in Sonoma. I was just kind of thrown into the fire with road-course racing, but I loved it from the first time I jumped on track.”
You won the 1999 NASCAR Southwest Tour race at Sonoma. Was that your first road-course win in a stock car? Was it a pivotal victory considering NASCAR teams were there and you were able to showcase your talents to Cup Series car owners and crew chiefs?
“That was my first win in a stock car at a road course. I’ve always believed that Saturday race was the most important stage to stand on because there wasn’t a Truck Series race or an Xfinity Series race. Back in the day, the Southwest Tour race was the support race, and my race was live on ESPN. I’ve always thought Sonoma helped springboard me into the spotlight, and I’m very thankful for that chance.”
How important is it to have a positive mindset when you come into a road-course race?
“I love road racing and I think it’s fun. It’s important to have appositive mindset everywhere, but it’s not problem for me at the road courses.”
What do you like best about road-course racing?
“I just like the rhythm. I like how you use one corner to help you in the next corner. You have to be thinking three corners ahead.”
Is there more opportunity on a road course because mistakes are magnified and because the race is more in the driver’s hands?
“Everything seems to have a larger consequence because track position is so important. So as soon as you have a flat tire or a fender rub or you go off track, it’s very difficult to get back the track position you once had.”
You have a history of success on road courses. Stewart-Haas Racing has a history of success on road courses. What are your expectations for this weekend at Sonoma?
“We hope that we can win. The No. 14 car won last year with Tony Stewart. I know (Clint) Bowyer is really excited for the weekend and so are we. We could’ve won this race two years ago and I finished second to my little brother Kyle in the first Busch one-two finish, and last year we just burned the rear tires off of the car. We just have to get a hang of the tires that are constantly changing to get our Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford where we want it to be.”