“Son, you need to keep track of your front bumper.” –Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Two decades ago, a rookie driver from Las Vegas named Kurt Busch lined up for his first Daytona 500. The date was Sunday, February 18, 2001, and before a national TV audience numbered at over 17 million viewers, Busch started a career that has so far delivered a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship and 31 Cup wins. And he’s still at it, taking big swings up at the sharp end of the NASCAR field. It’s been a very good season thus far for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro. One win (Kentucky), five top five finishes and 14 top 10s have comfortably slotted the 2004 Cup champion into the 2019 playoffs. In Los Angeles on Wednesday to do some TV and film promotional work – most notably with the new Monster Energy-backed Blink of an Eye movie – RACER caught up with the man who would love nothing more than to win another Cup title.
Q: I wanted to get your take on the film Blink of an Eye.
KURT BUSCH: Oh, the movie Blink of an Eye is incredible. I mean, what an amazing insight into the 2001 Daytona 500. The story and the movie give that tale of Michael Waltrip’s journey to that day, and how tough it was for him to break through, and how he kept trying to make it victory lane.
That was my very first-ever Daytona 500. A sales guys came up to me that race weekend and said, “Try this little device on and tell me what you think.” So I wore this thing called a HANS device in the car for practice. I said afterwards, “Yeah, it’s a little awkward and clunky, but I’m young and hopefully I’ll be around here for a while, so I’ll buy it from you and I’ll wear it.” And that device might have helped save Dale Earnhardt Sr. That’s the vision that reflected in my mind while watching this film.
But all of that aside and just focusing on the film, Blink of an Eye is a great view into the NASCAR world on how to difficult it is to make it to the top. And watching Michael Waltrip’s journey, even though his brother was a multiple champion in the top division of NASCAR at the time, shows you nothing is guaranteed. What an amazing journey for Michael to get to that point, and then to have so many emotions shot through your heart from every angle after you’ve won that race… I couldn’t imagine it.
Like Michael said, “People experience highs and they experience lows from the peak of Mount Everest to the lowest depths of Death Valley within three minutes.” And it shows, and it shows the true character of who Michael Waltrip is, and how strong he is to be able to make it through all that.”
Q: Throughout the film, there is a profound amount of emotion displayed by the people who were closest to Dale Earnhardt Sr. Now, nearly 20 years later, were you surprised to see some of these people still so torn up over what happened that day at Daytona?
KB: No, I wasn’t. I was there in 2001, and nobody left Daytona. We were all in a state of shock, and confused on what way to go next. We all lost our everything. I mean, he was everybody’s rival; he was everybody’s leader; he was everybody’s politician; he was the man in black; he was the face of NASCAR.
Again, when you talk about it right now, even post-movie, I get choked up on the different times that I met Dale Sr, and got to race with him, and to see everybody’s stories come back to life. It’s amazing what that individual and what Michael Waltrip had to go through. I’m glad that story is being told. It deserves to be told. I’m glad that Monster Energy saw this, believed in it and made it come back again for people to understand the power of NASCAR.
Q: Like you, I’m a major fan of NASCAR’s history and heritage. Seeing all of the drivers and cars and races through the period the film covers really was so just so entertaining to me. What did you think about all that stuff?
KB: Yeah, it was like a current flashback. Like you say, it was amazing to see the cars from 2001 and it was like,“Wow! We raced those?” But yet the colors and the crowds and sponsorships and all the things that were beginning to happen. It was a revolution from NASCAR in the 1990s with the TV influx, but with the 2000s, the sport just grabbed another gear and the film shows where the sport was at that moment and where it was headed.
Q: Did you get to know Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. well during your career?
KB: I got to know Dale Jr. a little bit over the years. I had a couple moments with Dale Sr. the first time I was qualifying as a rookie at Dover in 2000, and he was walking down pit road after I did my lap and came up to me and said, “Son, I didn’t think you were ever going to lift.” I was like, “Wow, Dale Sr. just talked with me. Wait a minute, was that a compliment or did I do something wrong?” I didn’t know!
I also had an unfortunate episode with Dale Jr. I spun him around at Rockingham at the second-to-last race when Dale Jr. was in a tightly contested battle for Rookie of the Year with Matt Kenseth, and Dale Sr. approached me at the final race of the year at Miami-Homestead and he said, “Son, you need to keep track of your front bumper.” He rode my rear end in that race for, I swear, 350 miles of that 400-mile race at Homestead that year. He was sweating me to no end to show me how I needed to have more car control.
Q: Did you get to hang around with Dale Sr. at all?
KB: Those were my only two quick moments with him. I might have saw him at media day that year at Daytona, but never really had the chance to have a beer or sit down for lunch and hang out with Sr.
Q: If I have it right, you’re now the only active Cup driver out there who actually raced against Dale Sr. Is that correct?
KB: Ryan Newman was doing some ARCA races and some Busch Series races and some Cup races back around 1999 and 2000. I want to say Newman ran a race or two with Senior, but his rookie year is 2002 and Senior died February of 2001. So nobody gives Ryan credit for racing with Senior and I’ve ended up with the banner. But yeah, I hear that all the time: “You’re the last guy that raced Senior!” And I’ll reply, “Yeah, it was an honor. It was a spectacle. It was cool as hell.”
Q:You’re having a great year with Chip Ganassi Racing, and in you’re in the playoffs. Your hometown race over at Las Vegas Speedway will kick everything off in a couple days. How do you feel about making another run at a title?
KB: I’m feeling really good about our chances this year. This year at Ganassi we had a team that overachieved. We exceeded expectations of what we wanted to do together. That’s what I told Chip. I said, “I want to make your team a winner again and I want to take it to the playoffs.” Chip then said, “I want to win a championship.” I said, ‘Yes sir, let’s do it.” It was a seamless transition. I’ve loved every minute of racing for Chip Ganassi, and we’re going to win, and we’re going to be winners, and we’re going to have a shot at this championship.
It’s about being competitive, and winning races, and being up front and having fun with it, and we’ve done all that. We’ve had a tremendous 26 regular season races, and now let the playoffs begin. This where we have to execute with perfection and lead by example towards this championship.
Q: Can you win it all come Homestead?
KB: We can win it in a couple different ways. My strategy is consistency in the beginning and then attack when we need to. Most importantly, it’s that round of eight that we have to get to. We can’t put the cart before the horse. That round of eight – I’ve been eliminated there out of the last four years. Our strength this year has been on the smooth, fast mile and a half tracks, so Texas has got the gold star above it right now but we have to do our job to get there.
Q: Winning another Monster Energy NASCAR Cup would make for one remarkable bookend on your career, huh?
KB: It could be. It would be fabulous and I would be more appreciative of the effort of what it takes to be a champion in this sport. I was only 26 years old and didn’t appreciate the work of what all those team members at Roush Racing put into the car. I was more about me, me, me. It’s really neat at this point in my career to help young engineers and crew members develop and position them to be the right people around me to help us do this job for the number one car.
Showing at theaters for one day only on Sept. 12th. Go to Fathomevents.com to find a theater near you.