As Kurt Busch heads to Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400, he happily wears a blue Ford oval for his 33rd career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at the ultrafast two-mile oval.
Fifteen of Busch’s 29 career NASCAR Cup Series wins have come with Ford, and after 11 years away from the brand (2006-2016), Busch came back in a big way in 2017 by wheeling his No. 41 Ford Fusion into victory lane in the season-opening Daytona 500.
In keeping with the oval theme, it was a full-circle win for Busch. He brought Ford its last NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2004, and the Daytona 500 victory automatically earned him and his Monster Energy/Haas Automation team one of the 16 playoff spots available for this year’s championship drive.
Busch has never been one to rest on past success, and the taste of victory has only made him hungry for more. With 13 races having passed since feasting at Daytona, Busch is ready for another hearty meal, and no place is better than the backyard of the United States’ Big Three auto manufacturers – Michigan International Speedway.
For Dearborn-based Ford Motor Company, the 70-mile drive from the Detroit area into the lush green of the state’s Irish Hills region only whets the appetite for what 400 miles on Sunday can bring.
Ford has won nearly half the NASCAR Cup Series races run at the track since it opened in 1969. Of the 95 NASCAR Cup Series races contested at Michigan, Ford and its Mercury brand have won 47 of them (35 wins by Ford and 12 by Mercury). Busch is credited with one of those triumphs – June 2003 when he snatched the lead from Jeff Gordon with 24 laps to go to claim his seventh career Cup Series win.
Busch has scored two more Michigan wins since – August 2007 and June 2015 – to tie Matt Kenseth for the most wins at Michigan among active Cup Series drivers. Those victories are augmented by two poles (June 2010 and June 2011), five top-threes, 11 top-10s and a total of 448 laps led, which is second only to Jimmie Johnson’s tally of 687 laps led.
Now back with the blue oval, Busch is intent on getting a second championship and Ford’s first since the one Busch delivered for the marque in 2004. After 14 races, Busch is tracing a similar path in 2017 as he did in 2004. He has a win and two top-fives, just like he did in 2004, and his seven top-10s are actually one better than the amount he had in 2004.
Busch comes into the 15th race of 2017 fresh off a strong fourth-place drive at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. It was his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races. Now he’s eyeing a fourth win at Michigan with a Monster Energy/Haas Automation team that thinks outside the box and inside the oval.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re back with Ford where you won your first 14 NASCAR Cup Series races. But in this go-round, there’s a One Ford mentality instead of a team-by-team philosophy. How is it working out?
“Right away at Daytona everybody from Ford was there, and there was a big meeting with all the Ford teams about how we need to all work together at the restrictor-plate tracks. Then as we moved forward to the mile-and-a-halves and the short tracks, there are little things that we’ve been doing at SHR versus what Penske has been doing or Roush or RPM (Richard Petty Motorsports), and so we want to try to share the information but, at the same time, you’ve got to keep the technology in-house. So, Ford has a nice balance of what they’ve asked us to do and how we’re all sharing information moving forward. Really, it’s a unique situation with having Doug Yates as our engine builder. He’s really smart. He’s on top of everything. So whether it’s the oiling system, the water cooling system, different gear ratios and things, we’ve been working closely together on those.”
What’s been the key to your success at Michigan?
“The biggest thing about Michigan is respecting the speed. It’s a very fast racetrack.”
What does it take to be fast at Michigan?
“Michigan is a tough place because of the way the cars have that grip level on fresh tires versus old tires. What I mean by that is, when you put on fresh tires, your tires are cold and they don’t grab the asphalt as well. A lot of guys try to stay out at Michigan with the hot tires on and they get better restarts. Restarts at Michigan are already pretty wild with how wide the track is and how many lanes there are for options. It comes down to just trying to put yourself in the best position with the best-percentage chance of whether it’s fresh tires, or it’s staying out, or it’s making spots up on restarts.”
What do you feel like is the toughest part of Michigan?
“The toughest part is turn three. It seems like the cars do this weird, four-wheel, light drift getting down in there. If your car is dialed in, and I’ve won there three times, it feels like turn three is the easiest corner. Turn three to me is the challenge each time I go there.”