Quick, name the only 1.5-mile oval the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will visit between now and the start of the 10-race playoffs. If you answered Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, go to the head of the line.
Five of the 10 races in the playoffs take place on 1.5-mile ovals, making Kentucky a valuable track to not only earn a race win and stage bonus points to secure one’s playoff position, but to also gain valuable data for a championship drive that culminates on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.
If you’re standing at the head of the line when the checkered flag drops at Homestead, it means you’re the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. Kurt Busch was in this very position in 2004 when he won the championship in its first playoff guise.
That a title-winning party in South Beach can trace its origins to the Upland South region of Kentucky is not far-fetched. Twice the winner of the Kentucky 400 has gone on to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship – Brad Keselowski in 2012 and Kyle Busch in 2015.
There have only been six NASCAR Cup Series races at Kentucky since the series made its inaugural trip to the track in 2011. Kurt Busch, while winless at Kentucky, has knocked down a top-five finish, four top-10s and led a total of 51 laps. His average start is 11.5 and his average finish is 10th. Also impressive is his 100-percent lap completion rate, where the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford Fusion has completed all 1,602 laps available.
Busch’s best Kentucky performance came in last year’s race when he qualified third and led once for 10 laps before finishing fourth. The third-place qualifying effort equaled his best at Kentucky, first earned in the inaugural Cup Series race in 2011. And his fourth-place finish was his best at the track, topping his previous best of sixth secured in the 2013 race.
That fourth-place finish allowed Busch to check off another stat box on his tenured Cup Series resume, as it gave Busch a top-five at every track on the Cup Series schedule. Prior to last year, Kentucky was the only omission.
Busch returns to the Bluegrass State with back-to-back top-10 finishes in the Kentucky 400. He’s eager to upgrade those performances with a win and simultaneously notch his milestone 30th career NASCAR Cup Series victory to take sole possession of 25th on the all-time Cup Series win list.
While victory at Kentucky is in his immediate sights, a strong performance aids Busch’s long-term goal of securing another championship. Between participating in a Goodyear tire test May 9-10 at Kentucky and coming out of Saturday night’s Kentucky 400 with another strong drive, Busch believes Kentucky can take him to Homestead.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re 14th in points with nine races to go before the playoffs begin. Ten different winners are already taking up 16 of the available spots. How important is your Daytona 500 victory in the scope of securing your playoff position?
“It’s vital. It’s definitely a nice safety net to have for our Haas Automation/Monster Energy team. Once we went to the West Coast early in the year, we struggled with alternator issues and missed the setup a few times with the new balance of our Ford versus where we were last year. And then since Texas, though, I think we’ve turned a good corner to find good, consistent runs. Like Kansas, I was running fifth on the last restart and we ended up 19th just getting hit by Denny (Hamlin) on that last restart. Similarly, at Michigan, we were running 10th and got 12th at the end with Jimmie Johnson passing us on the outside. We’re running better, but we’re just not capitalizing on any of the stage points. That’s been the toughest part so far this year and that’s why we’re down a little bit in points.”
How would you assess your season so far?
“To start off winning the biggest stock car race in the world and to have the chance to hoist up the Harley J. Earl trophy – that was a special moment and the highlight of my career. That isn’t something to rest on. I would say a few weeks after that, we were slightly hungover, not necessarily literally, it just seemed like a fog. There was a lot of energy. All of us were so excited. We’re ordering rings, flags. We’re taking the Harley J. Earl trophy to Ford’s headquarters, Monster Energy’s headquarters, Haas Automation’s headquarters – there was a lot going on. Once we settled in and learned the balance of our Ford Fusion and how things were changing here and there, quite honestly, I think we’ve done great. In half the races this year we have a top-10 finish. We have to focus on the mile-and-a-halves and making sure we are best prepared for when the playoffs start.”
Did winning right out of the gate this year change your approach to this season?
“The way that it seems to have unfolded the last few years for us on the 41 car is we’re always building up to that win. We’re running well with a top-five here and there and a bad day might be 12th. When we broke through at Pocono last summer for the win, then it seems like it was a struggle after we won. You have to get it rebuilt and adjust and not get complacent and get ready for the playoffs. So when you win the first race of the year, it changes the game in how you have to adjust and build it back up.”
You mentioned the importance of the mile-and-a-half tracks. Kentucky is the only mile-and-a-half racetrack before the playoffs start. How important is this race?
“Well, we tested at Kentucky earlier this year (May 9-10) working with Goodyear on the tires. I know that we have a Chicago test (Aug. 15-16) with Goodyear on the tire that they’re wanting to bring to that race. A lot of it is getting into sim work. I was on the Ford Performance simulator before we went out to Sonoma, and then there are the computer simulation models that the engineers use. I think it’s just getting into more details and gaining a further understanding of what it’s going to take to be successful at Chicago, Dover, Charlotte, Kansas and Texas. Texas is one of the most important races, or at least it used to be, because the asphalt surface was very comparable to Homestead. Right now, I think the two most important races coming up are Kentucky and Chicago if we’re gearing up for a championship run.”
You’ve been competing at Kentucky since its beginning, running the track’s inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in 2000. The track has changed quite a bit even since the NASCAR Cup Series began racing at Kentucky in 2011. What did you think of the place when you first arrived as a Truck Series rookie?
“I went there for the first time when I was racing Trucks. It was an inaugural race and I thought that since it was the first time anyone went there that rookies had just as good of a shot to win as veterans. I overdrove that race every ounce I could and ended up wrecking with about 15 laps to go while running in the lead pack. I hit pretty hard. I think that was one of the hardest hits I’ve taken. Kentucky stood up and bit me the first time I was there. And, up until recently, we never ran a Cup race there, so we used it as a test facility. So, my time when I was at Roush, I think we were there every other Tuesday making laps. So, I had plenty of laps at Kentucky, but not in race configuration.”
Richard Petty turned 80 earlier this week. What are your thoughts on The King and his contributions to the sport?
“He’s our King. He deserves a full year of celebration. He’s a true pioneer of our sport. Two hundred race wins. Seven championships. The legacy that the Petty family has is incomparable, and it’s great that he’s still here and signs autographs every week. He’s the most charismatic guy and his personality is so big. Every time you see him at the track, he’s got his hat and sunglasses on and he’s just happy-go-lucky, and yet he is the face of our sport when it really comes time to reaching back to our past. My favorite moment was watching him win his 200th at Daytona and having Kentucky Fried Chicken with President Reagan. And the time I got to meet him at Richard Petty Motorsports in Level Cross, North Carolina – that was a big moment of walking into the King’s office and being there where the history of our sport has been rooted. It was really neat to go to his office and share a moment with him.”