Kurt Busch returns to Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway riding the prized Harley he picked up earlier this year when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series kicked off its season with the Daytona 500.
It’s slick and black and has just enough silver to give it the perfect shine. It’s coveted by everyone in Daytona and turns heads wherever it goes. It’s badass sitting still.
What it’s not is a motorcycle. No, Busch’s Harley is the Harley J. Earl, the trophy given to the winner of the Daytona 500.
In his 17th Daytona 500 back in February, Busch led only one lap but it was the only lap that mattered. A last-lap pass of Kyle Larson in turns one and two of the 2.5-mile oval netted Busch his first points-paying victory at Daytona and his first restrictor-plate win in the NASCAR Cup Series. Busch’s triumph in the Great American Race secured his 29th career Cup Series victory and arguably the biggest of his career.
Now the 38-year-old racer from Las Vegas, Nevada, is back in Daytona for the Coke Zero 400, round No. 17 on the marathon-like 36- race NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
He enters the Saturday night race with six top-10 finishes in his last eight Cup Series starts. While able to feast on his Daytona 500 win from four months ago, Busch returns to his greatest glory since winning the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series championship hungry for another win.
Tasting victory at Daytona is something Busch was familiar with even before his victory in the 500. He won the July 2012 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona after leading six times for a race-high 23 laps, but had to take the lead from Joey Logano on the final lap. Busch also owns two non-points wins at Daytona – the 2011 Budweiser Shootout and the 2011 Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Looking back, they were all precursors to Busch’s Daytona 500 win. And as much as drivers look in the rearview mirror during a restrictor-plate race, they must also look forward, and ahead of Busch is another Daytona trophy.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Coming back to Daytona as a Daytona 500 champion, do you walk into the garage a little taller, a little prouder?
“What’s different about going back there in July is we’re in the repetition and rhythm of the season. But when you prepare for the Daytona 500, there’s so much that goes into the car, you always go there feeling really upbeat and special about the whole week and what lies ahead, and this time we won. It’s been a great feeling with a lot of residual value – how happy Haas Automation was and everybody at Ford, and then Monster Energy’s first race as an entitlement sponsor. It couldn’t have been more of a storybook type of script from Hollywood when we won the Daytona 500. I’m still jazzed about it. Going back there is going to be great. I’m going to go by the museum and see the car in victory lane there. We just have to do our homework again and have everything go our way so we can win again in July.”
Where is the Harley J. Earl trophy and where has it been?
“We had fun with Earl, taking him all around and starting a tradition that’s similar to what they do with the Stanley Cup. We’ve had a blast. Earl went to a lot of different places. I think the most fun we had with him was gambling on the craps table in Vegas along with (wife) Ashley. He visited Haas Automation headquarters, Monster Energy headquarters and Ford headquarters with Edsel Ford and other winners from the Daytona 24 Hours. Earl was tired for a little bit. We went around to a few other places here and there. We took him to a BMX race in South Carolina where the kids got to see a Daytona 500 trophy. And then, as of late, he’s been hanging out in the trophy room bragging about how special he is to the other trophies at my house. He took over. I couldn’t hold Earl back. He wanted to go to a lot of places.”
Was winning the Daytona 500 a monkey off your back?
“The big thing was a win at a restrictor-plate race, which I had been trying to do for many, many years. Not just Daytona and the 500 itself, but Talladega, running a truck race at Daytona and finishing second, running at Talladega and finishing third as much as I have, and then running second as much as I had in the Daytona 500, I thought to myself, ‘Man, there has to be a law of averages here. Maybe one day I’ll have the chance to win one of the restrictor-plate races for points.’ And, I couldn’t be happier, feel more privileged and humbled, that it happened in the Daytona 500. We positioned ourselves well with a good car, and I feel the element of switching back to Ford was a difference-maker in all of it.”
What makes success in restrictor-plate racing so elusive?
“I think being in the right place at the right time is one of the toughest things to do, but you have to have that to be successful. When you have a car built by (crew chief) Tony Gibson and Stewart-Haas Racing, you feel like you have the best bullet possible when you show up for your first practice session. So, I’m thankful to have Tony Gibson on my side when it comes to superspeedway racing.”
You need drafting partners in order to be successful in a restrictor-plate race. How do you pick your dance partners?
“You just quickly digest if they’re around you, in front of you, behind you. Every restart things change, every lap things change, but you’re always keeping them in mind to try and work with them.”
You’re back in the Ford fold in 2017 and the Coke Zero 400 marks your third restrictor-plate race this season. How much teamwork takes place amongst all the Ford drivers and how does Ford encourage everyone to work together?
“We had a nice meeting with Ford and all their executives right before the start of the Daytona 500. It wasn’t like a coaching through fear of, ‘You will work together.’ They just set a nice tone. They said, ‘We’re all in this together as Ford and the blue oval and we want to see you guys working together when you have a chance to do it.’ When you’re on the track, it’s not mandatory, but we want to work as a company, like Ford, like SHR, you have your primary groups of guys and gals that you draft with and everybody knows, though, that at the end of the race, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your specific car number and you just hope that it does work out that you’re working with a teammate and with Ford.”
While teamwork is a part of restrictor-plate racing, eventually you need to look out for yourself. At what point in the race do you do that?
“You’re looking out for yourself on lap one, but the percentage of it changes throughout the race. You want to work together as much as you can with teammates and other guys and gals that you’ve worked with in the past. But once it gets down to the final set of tires and the final fuel run, you’re really working independently. If it comes down to a late-race restart at Daytona, what goes through my mind is this isn’t going to be the last restart. So you have to be ready to roll with whatever comes your way – what drafting lane you’re in, where your teammates are and what gameplan you have put together with them. There are so many different things going on that it’s kind of like a roulette wheel – when you spin and you’ve got your money laid down, you hope you have your money in enough areas to come out on top.”
How much of what you experienced in the Daytona 500 is applicable to the Coke Zero 400?
“A lot of it. I’m hopeful to go back to Daytona in July and back up our win in the Daytona 500. We finished sixth at Talladega and on the last lap I was almost in the same position as Daytona. I just lost my drafting buddy Aric Almirola on the last lap. He didn’t quite stay on our rear bumper as close as I needed him to give us a shot at the win. That’s all you’re trying to do – putting yourself in position to win, and that’s what we want to do again in July.”