It all started on September 24, 2000 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Kurt Busch, who was just 22 years old, drove the No. 97 John Deere Ford Taurus for Roush Fenway Racing in the MBNA.com 400. It was his first career start in NASCAR’s top series.
At Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor (Tenn.) Speedway, Busch will make his 600th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start. And for the driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), there is no better place for it to happen than at Bristol.
Busch has five wins, nine top-five finishes and 16 top-10s at the .533-mile concrete oval and has led 1,062 laps in 33 career starts there.
He scored his first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Bristol in March 2002. He started 27th and led 89 laps en route to that maiden victory. It was only his third visit to the .533-mile, high-banked oval, making him the only driver to record his first win at Bristol in fewer than four attempts.
His five Bristol wins – March 2002 and 2003, August 2003, March 2004 and 2006 – tie him with his younger brother Kyle Busch as the winningest active NASCAR Cup Series drivers at Bristol.
Busch even completed the Bristol sweep in 2003, winning both the spring and fall NASCAR Cup Series events. He started ninth and led 116 laps in March while starting fifth and leading 121 laps in August. In March 2004, Busch went on to record his third consecutive win at Bristol when he started 13th and led 119 laps on his way to victory lane.
He is one of four drivers to win three or more consecutive Cup Series races at Bristol. Fred Lorenzen won three in a row starting with the fall race in 1963, followed by a sweep of both 1964 events. Cale Yarborough won four in a row with sweeps in 1976 and 1977. Darrell Waltrip won seven in a row, including sweeps in 1981, 1982 and 1983, then a win at the March 1984 race.
Busch has led laps in 15 of his 33 career Cup Series starts at Bristol and he has led more than 100 laps four times, including three consecutive races – 116 in March 2003, 121 in August 2003, and 119 in March 2004.
But on that day at Dover 17 years ago, the young Busch started 10th and finished a solid 18th with Jeff Hammond as his crew chief.
His current team owner Tony Stewart won the race, while Johnny Benson and Ricky Rudd were second and third. Of the 43 drivers in the field, only Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Busch are full-time in the series this season.
Busch’s current crew chief Tony Gibson refers to everyone as “Old Man.” But Busch doesn’t feel like an “Old Man,” and this week at Bristol, he’s hoping he can add to his Bristol – and NASCAR – legacy.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re making your 600th NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series start at this week’s race at Bristol. Can you talk about that?
“It’s a fun number. You don’t think about it when you’re racing. You don’t have it as a goal when you start out racing. I love that fact that it’s at Bristol. The 600th start happens to be at a milestone track for me because I won my first race there and I’ve won my most races there. It’s been a special place for me over the years. It’ll be nice to celebrate it there. I never thought I’d see 600, you don’t really think about it. It almost feels like 400 to me. I still feel like there is plenty more to do, more races to win. I haven’t won at Darlington or Indianapolis and those are ones I want to check off the list. But it’s a proud moment for myself. And a time to say thanks to my dad and all the different car owners I’ve raced for and raced with. And all the sponsors. It’s been a great ride. But it also feels like there is more left.”
What do you remember about your first career start at Dover?
“I was in way over my head (laughter). It was at Dover for my first-ever start and I think I qualified 10th. And they dropped the green flag and guys like Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., just went blowing by me. And I’m flat out. And I was like, ‘What’s the rush? I thought this was 400 miles?’ I literally fell back to last place and I remember radioing in and said, ‘Am I last yet?’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Good.’ And I took a deep breath and just started passing them one at a time and I ended up 18th and two laps down in my first race.”
And who was your crew chief during that first race?
“It was Jeff Hammond, who works for FOX now. And I also had Matt Chambers, who was my Truck Series crew chief. He was coming up to take over the duties. And that was a unique situation, too, coming straight from Trucks straight into Cup. And only 12 months earlier I was running Late Models in Las Vegas.”
How tough was the challenge to go from Late Models to Trucks to Cup in that little time?
“I had the luxury of testing a lot. They don’t have the same testing rules now for rookies. The car side of it seemed OK, until about lap 200, and then I was falling out of the seat (laughter). The Cup races were just really long.”
What does it take to be successful at Bristol?
“I like how you can attack the track in certain situations. And then you have to cruise in other situations. You always have to know your surroundings at Bristol. When someone is on your rear bumper or if you are really trying to pressure somebody hard, is there a reason to be doing such? You have to be one with the track and then just digest where the other cars are around you.”