For the first time in his 17-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, Kurt Busch is undefeated. Having won Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, his first in the “Great American Race,” Busch is boasting a perfect 1-0 record.
To be fair, there is still a lot of racing to go – 35 points-paying events to be exact – but that hasn’t stopped the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champ from enjoying the fact that, for now, he is in a league of his own.
As the Daytona 500 champion, Busch has spent the last two days in a whirlwind of celebratory activities that included a breakfast ceremony Monday morning with members of the media and having his winning No. 41 Ford enshrined for display at Daytona. He followed that up with a trip to New York for a series of interviews and television show appearances, with more to come as the week continues.
In the midst of all of the fanfare that goes with winning the Daytona 500, the Las Vegas native has started turning his attention to the next event on the 2017 Cup Series schedule, which just so happens to be at a track where he has enjoyed unabashed success – Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Driving the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), Busch aims to improve his season record to 2-0 by winning Sunday’s Folds of Honor 500 Cup Series race. And given his career statistics at the 1.54-mile Atlanta oval, there is plenty of reason to enter the race weekend with high expectations.
A three-time Atlanta winner, Busch has long lauded the track referred to as “Hotlanta” as his favorite. The term “hot,” however, is not something likely to be tossed around much this time of year, and that suits the 38-year-old Busch just fine, having scored two of his three Atlanta wins during the month of March – in 2009 and 2010. In addition to that pair of wins, Busch also won there in October 2002, a feat he accomplished behind the wheel of a Ford, the manufacturing partner of SHR.
While the wins are what everyone remembers, Busch’s overall record at Atlanta is certainly noteworthy, featuring six top-five finishes and 11 top-10s in 25 starts. Complementing Busch’s results at Atlanta is the fact that he’s led at least one lap in 12 different races for a total of 749 laps led, has failed to finish a race on only three occasions, and has completed all but 629 laps run in his 25 starts for a lap-completion rate of 92.2 percent.
Perhaps more telling is Busch’s most recent work at Atlanta. In his last seven starts there, Busch has not finished worse than 13th. During that stretch, Busch has recorded one pole, having started from the top spot in the 2016 edition of the Folds of Honor 500, and scored one win, four top-five finishes and five top-10s.
Busch would like nothing more than to score another win in the 2017 edition of the Folds of Honor 500 to record his fourth NASCAR Cup Series win at Atlanta and extend his season record to a perfect 2-0.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Has it sunk in yet that you are a Daytona 500 champion?
“I’ll tell you it’s been surreal. To win a Daytona 500 is hard to put into words. It’s beyond belief, really. As a kid, you watch this race on TV and you live the experiences with each of the drivers who win the race or lose the race. After 16 years of having it go 16 different ways, when you win it one time, it erases all of those memories and you now have this permanent memory of being able to drive into victory lane with a winning car, and a winning car that is put together by a great group of guys, a talented group of guys, and a committed group of guys. This year, it’s even that much more special because we switched over to Ford in the offseason and that brought a lot of change to Stewart-Haas Racing. That change brought everybody together with a different comradery that we hadn’t had before. We’re a strong unit together at SHR, but to switch over to Ford and put in all that extra time with the chassis dyno, the wind tunnel, the massaging of this area of the car, or to build this new component. I felt, coming to Speedweeks this year, I had the most puzzle pieces in place and I just kept believing, and here we are as a team as Daytona 500 champions. It’s a great feeling.”
Turning your attention to Atlanta, you won the pole and finished fourth at Atlanta last year. With the new 2017 rule package, what do you think we’ll see there this weekend?
“I expect it will be loose and that we’ll see a lot of slipping and sliding. With the way that the new segments are going to blend in, you don’t want to use up your tires too early in the race because you want to save a set, maybe even two sets, for the final 20 laps. You never know when yellow flags are going to come out and that changes the game. If you don’t have tires ready, then you’re going to be in a defensive position instead of offensive.”
What is the key to being successful at Atlanta?
“The key is not to wear out one tire more than the others. You need all four to wear evenly. You need a nice, balanced racecar to where it’s not stressed on corner entry or corner exit. If you have too much wheel input in one spot, it’s going to chew up those tires.”
Is there anything that you’ve found to be particularly difficult about Atlanta?
“It seems like turns three and four, if you find the bottom and hook the apron perfectly, there are two-tenths (of a second) that you can carry magically all the way through that corner. So if you can hook that apron and hit it just right, then your lap time will really look good. If you miss it, then you’re struggling and trying to find it the next lap. The problem is that the tires wear out so fast and now you’ve got to try and change your strategy each time.”