INTERVIEW: Kurt Busch on respect, results – and why he wants to race at Le Mans

Image by Thacker/LAT

INTERVIEW: Kurt Busch on respect, results – and why he wants to race at Le Mans

NASCAR

INTERVIEW: Kurt Busch on respect, results – and why he wants to race at Le Mans

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A few days removed from the 24 Hours of Le Mans – which he attended as a “fan” – Kurt Busch was in a talkative mood.

“You know, at Michigan where I got that second place finish last week before I left for Le Mans, that was the tightest I ever pulled my belts at the end of a race,” he says. “It was like, we don’t need to get anything but the win, and we got second place. [Joey] Logano’s car was tough.”

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, is right there in the fray for the 2019 title. Entering the season with a somewhat tenuous one-year contract with the Kyle Larson-focused Chip Ganassi Racing team, the once embattled driver has flourished with a prism of top 10 (nine times) and even top three (three times) finishes.

“My heart that I grew up with in racing is there,” Busch says. “It’s still fueled by the passion to race.”

On his way to Sonoma Raceway for this Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350, Busch spoke with RACER about the past, present and future of his racing endeavors. Easily one of this nation’s most prolific and accomplished racers, Busch has no plans on lifting anytime soon. Relaxed, in good spirits and in something of a reflective mood after his French walkabout, he talked about the recent flurry of activity which has seen him climbing in and out of world class race cars.

Q: So what did you just do with one of your rare weekends off from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series?

KURT BUSCH: I just had a nice off weekend with Ganassi out at Le Mans. It was nice to go over there and experience the race with Chip Ganassi and the whole GT program. I also had an invite from Jim Campbell and the Corvette program. I’ve always loved the GT cars in action, and this was my first chance to really go see him and the cars and with it all being at Le Mans, it made it all that much more special. I had full access with Ganassi, and grid access. I went into the garage with the team and everything. I also brought my driver bag, just in case!

Q: Yes, you’ve spoken with me about hoping to race GT cars one day. Did you enjoy the whole affair?

KB: Yeah, that was the main reason for the trip: to experience Le Mans and the pageantry, and to feel all of that newness, and to experience it as a fan first and to make connections and to talk with people about different programs. You never know what the future holds. It was nice to be at Le Mans in France and to be able to talk with different people. It was great to see the different teams, you know? Like [GM motorsports boss] Jim Campbell and the Corvette program and [Ford chairman] Bill Ford with the Ganassi GT program. I was bumping into some old friends and team managers as far as racers, too. I wanted to experience it all with them, and to also show my enthusiasm for Le Mans.

Q: You’ve climbed in and raced a lot of different equipment throughout your career. It’s obvious you love motor racing.

KB: Yeah, I’m a racer first, and a student and also a fan. To be able to experience these different races is awesome. I’ve run the Indy 500, I got an invite to run a rally car a few years ago at Monza, and I’ve also been around the MotoGP guys. MotoGP is more about respect, though, I never would jump on a two-wheel bike. I think there are some more bucket list items out there to experience as a fan and also drive. Le Mans is one I had to go to first as fan. Now when I go back, it will be to drive in that 24 Hour race.

Busch reinforced his crossover credentials at the Indy 500 in 2014. Image by Levitt/LAT

Q: Back in 2011 you raced an NHRA Pro Stock National event, didn’t you?

KB: I did, yes. The nitro cars, I had to draw a line on those. The respect is there to watch those guys. I met John Force and Don Prudhomme and Big Daddy Don Garlits. It was all in 2011, when I ran a Pro Stock car. It was fun to qualify for the Gatornationals. I lost in the first round, but my reaction time was competitive and our lap time was competitive (ED: Busch ran a 6.541s pass). We just went up against a tough first round competitor.

Q: Did the 24 Hours of Le Mans live up to your expectations?

KB: It does. It does live up to the expectations and the fandom. The people that show up, they prove that motorsports are not dead and that car people are still car people. You should see the fandom. The infield sections of the track are going bananas at 3am. I bumped into the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway around midnight and he said, “Hey, let’s go, man. We’re going to go around to a few of the corners.” Of course we went to the Indianapolis corner with him. It was so neat to see everyone’s passion. Some people started to recognize me, and there I am signing autographs and hanging out with the fans late at night.

Q: And you rolled into France coming off a very good result at the Michigan International Speedway Cup race, where you met the checkered flag in a fighting runner-up position.

KB: Yeah, Michigan was a solid result for the Ganassi NASCAR project. I came off a week where we missed the setup at Pocono. You have to stub your toe and see the mistakes, and I’m glad the team rebounded as fast as we did to post such a solid result at Michigan like we did. That’s the vibe; that’s the feel we want to continue to bring to the track each week. I’m hopeful with the second half of the season that we can get back to these tracks for a second time, and that’s when I know we can grab another gear.

Q: You nailed down your ninth top-10 finish and second runner-up finish of the ’19 Cup season at MIS. Having said that, the No. 1 Ganassi Chevrolet has not won a Cup race in six years. You guys are really close, huh?

KB: Yeah, it has been exciting. The crew guys are hungry, and everybody is pushing really hard. I like the chemistry of that hunger, that drive and willingness to push. Kyle Larson has had some bad luck, and he has rebounded as well. That’s only going to help with everybody on this two-car team to find the results that we ultimately want to find.

Q: Can you get it done in Cup these days with a two-car team? Is there enough shared information to help the overall cause?

KB: You start out with the two cars, like we have at Ganassi. I would say that we are the second-strongest Chevrolet program. When we started the year, we were outperforming Hendrick. That energy of pushing each other? That’s what I know Ford did a couple years ago when Stewart-Hass Racing jumped on board with Ford to push the Penske guys further because Roush wasn’t quite pushing them. You start with your teammate first, and then you have your manufacturer. It’s still tough. I just want to be the best Chevrolet out there when it gets down to the end of the year.

Confidence is up after a good result last time out at Michigan. Image by Jarrett/LAT

Q: You inked a one-year agreement with Chip Ganassi Racing for 2019. I suppose one never knows what’s going to shake out with a new team, yet through the latest results, it all seems to be something of a match made in heaven, huh?

KB: It really has been. It’s been a pleasant surprise, but also in the way that I try and coach the team, it goes back to Daytona in February where I said, “Guys, let’s pretend that we’ve been together forever and let’s go after this; let’s try to jump over the learning process and just go off of the feedback that I’m giving you; and I’m going to go off your feedback and follow your race strategy…” I think that respect for one another played out in the first five races to get us over that. We’ve been a solid eighth in points and right there in the mix. We can get a little better, but let’s see what happens here as we start the second half of the season.

Q: You’ll compete this weekend at Sonoma, a road course where you’ve run extremely well at throughout your career…

KB: Yeah, I like the way the track layout is changing and it’ll be a new feeling for everyone to run The Carousel at Sonoma. I believe the tires are the same and the tires showed a lot of wear and drop-off last year, so with the new layout and with the tires dropping off, it’s going to be a challenge to get qualifying right, to get short run speed right, and to get that long run speed, which I think is key when you’re driving these big, heavy stock cars. We have a big challenge ahead of us this weekend.

Q: Can you win this one?

KB: Oh definitely. This one fits right in with Ganassi’s wheelhouse, with the No. 1 car always being real strong [at Sonoma] with Jamie McMurray driving it. The No. 42 has been on pole there. Everything is turning in the right direction. You know, I looked at this year, 2019, as a one-year deal to go to Ganassi and to find that success value of building the team up to make it a potential winner ,and to make it a winner and to win. So far that has plan has worked. I see more commitment from Chevrolet and Ganassi, and that teamwork and that respect of wanting to be wanted is pushing us all harder, and taking us to 2020 and beyond for me being behind the wheel.

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