As Kurt Busch embarks on his 17th full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and his fourth with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), he has a good reason to feel right at home as the driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford Fusion, as the 2017 marks a homecoming for Busch to Ford Motor Company, the manufacturer with whom he won the 2004 Cup Series championship.
It was Busch’s first Cup Series title and Ford’s most recent. Now reunited, the goal is to once again hoist the trophy during the season-ending Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Busch will attempt to surpass NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte’s record for time between championships –12 seasons separated Labonte’s two titles in 1984 and 1996 – and do it with the Dearborn, Michigan-based manufacturer with whom his NASCAR Cup Series career began.
The story of Busch’s start in NASCAR is well documented. While racing in the Southwest Tour Series, his skill attracted the attention of team owner Jack Roush, who decided to host driver auditions for a team he fielded in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The auditions were informally known as “The Gong Show” and Roush invited Busch to participate. In a pivotal moment in Busch’s life, he won the audition and started competing in Ford F-150s for Roush in 2000. Since then, both Busch and Ford have gone on to experience much success. But, there’s more to be had, and to be had together.
That all starts with the 59th Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Three times a runner-up in the season-opening event, Busch is still seeking his first Harley J. Earl trophy. In fact, while he’s found victory lane at Daytona before, in 2011’s Advance Auto Parts Clash and Can-Am Duel, he’s yet to score a win in a points-paying race at either Daytona or its sister racetrack, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. While he hasn’t found victory, he’s almost always found a way to be in contention at the end. And that, in a race that is known for unpredictable racing with the high likelihood of large, multicar accidents at any moment, is an impressive feat that cannot be overlooked.
Busch has been listed as running at the end of 30 of 31 career points-paying Cup Series starts at Daytona. While he’s seemingly mastered the art of finishing Daytona races, it’s the finishing first part he’s yet to figure out. In fact, a superspeedway win is the only kind that has eluded him during his 18-year Cup Series career. With a victory in the Daytona 500, Busch would join an elite list of drivers who have won at every type of track on the circuit: superspeedway, speedway, intermediate, short track and road course.
So, as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolls into Daytona to kick off the 2017 season, Busch hopes being reunited with Ford can help him not only to finally find his way to victory in the Daytona 500, but also to improve upon his successes of the last four seasons with SHR. While he’s made the playoffs each year with the Kannapolis, North Carolina-based team, he’s fallen short of contending for the championship late in the playoffs.
With the 16-driver Cup Series championship format, all it takes is just one win to lock a driver and team into the playoffs. Busch would like nothing more than to score that win in the 59th Daytona 500, marking his first victory in the prestigious event and placing him well on his way to reaching his season-long goal of winning his second Cup Series title.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford Fusion for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’re the most recent Ford NASCAR Cup Series champion. How special would it be to be able to win another for the company?
“It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing. It really feels neat to come back to a place where I’ve seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there’s more depth with Ford Performance. Edsel (Ford) has done an incredible job over the last decade to continue to improve. Guys like Raj Nair, Dave Pericak – the whole gang is ready and willing to help in all areas and directions and the best thing that I’ve seen already come out of things with the engineering staff at Stewart-Haas. It’s like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further from where we were.”
You can’t test like you once were able to in January. So how do you, as a driver, adjust to a change like the one that has been made at Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2017 season?
“It’s because the teams have more depth. There is more simulation. The engineering staff has gone through things at a much higher level, whereas it used to be the driver and the crew chief who would go to the track and then come back with a notebook of things. Now the notebook has been gone through by the lead engineers and they’ve prepared it as best as possible before we show up. Limited track time saves money but, at the same time, you end up spending it on personnel and hiring the key guys to make the cars safer, faster, stronger, and I know we’ve done a great job to transition with Ford because I’ve seen some of the drawings and the way that Doug Yates has the engine set up. We had to change a few of our suspension settings to adapt to the way he had his engine set up, so there might be a couple bugs here or there, but I’m not too worried about it. We’ve got really good, quality people at Stewart-Haas with Yates engines.”