Kurt Busch called his shot a little over a year ago. Fresh off his introduction at Chip Ganassi Racing, the former Cup Series champion told RACER that his No. 1 team would come out of the gate gangbusters.
Indeed, they did.
Busch racked up seven top-10 finishes for an average finish of 8.6 in the first 10 races. Unfortunately though, he and crew chief Matt McCall leveled off late in the year when it mattered most and never turned into serious championship contenders. Busch, who won at Kentucky in July, was eliminated in the first round of the postseason and wound up 13th in points.
“With the way our season went in 2019, I would say it was a good season,” said Busch. “We started off exceeding expectations where our process, in the beginning, was to build a base up in points, and so with a third at Atlanta, a top-five in Vegas, and consistent finishes all through the first half, we were rolling.”
The Kentucky win was a breakthrough. Busch had nine top 10s leading up to that weekend, including two runner-up finishes (Bristol and Michigan). It also came a week after Busch could have, maybe should have, won Daytona had it not been for an ill-timed pit stop just moments before the skies opened, bringing an early end to the event.
“(Kentucky) was our peak, that was our high point, and after that, it just seemed too much of a sawtooth type of finish in results,” continued Busch.
“We were high one week, we were really low the next, and that inconsistency followed us into the playoffs where we were eliminated first round. It was tough. We just didn’t perform well, and had bad luck at the same time. Then we had a streak of (four) top 10s in the playoffs, but we couldn’t gain that traction back, we couldn’t gain the points lost. And so, to finish outside the top 10 in points was disappointing.”
Here’s where Busch throws in a ‘but’ before continuing.
Remember, Busch was new to the Ganassi organization this year and back in the Chevrolet family. He inherited the ride from Jamie McMurray, who ended his full-time career and long-time association with Ganassi on a down note, finishing 20th in the 2018 standings with only eight top-10 finishes. Busch not only brought the team back to victory lane for the first time since ’13, but earned a total of 18 top-10 finishes.
“But from where the No. 1 car was last year to where it is now, mission accomplished, and that’s a perfect foundation to use going into 2020 especially with a multiyear contract extension,” said Busch. “To have Monster Energy and Chevrolet, and everybody at Ganassi back, everybody is going to be in the same position.
“If we can improve on the little things, that’s going to help us get to that Round of 8 and have a shot at the Championship 4, have a shot at the championship in 2020.”
Improvement will need to come in two key areas. One weakness Busch pointed out was the failure to earn many points in Stage 2. The other: pit road.
“I’ve got a graph that shows we lost 120 spots on pit road this year,” he said. “You can’t do that.”
Busch compared his season to that of Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman. Like Busch, Bowman won during the summer (Chicago) and experienced inconsistency late in the year that ended his playoffs in the second round.
“I thought the way we progressed and the way things were unfolding for us, we were in a perfect position,” said Busch. “And then it just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart. Bad restart led to, oh, now the pit crews got to pick it up and get those spots back. Then we had a cut tire at Vegas (to start the playoffs) that absolutely killed things.”
Despite the disappointing early taper to his season, Busch knows he upped the game at Ganassi and the No. 1 team, and there is hope to do even more going forward.
“It was a reward, it was satisfying, but at the same time I knew that group was ready,” said Busch. “I knew they could do some good things, and to have that shot mid-season to be in that position, to be in that top eight, it was a great feeling for our group to achieve that and also experience it.
“Now we’ve got to be able to catapult it from there and to be in that top four group all year long. That’s our goal next year.”
The 2020 season will be Busch’s 20th full year in the NASCAR Cup Series.