So there it was up on Kurt Busch’s Instagram account. Having just alighted from a private jet near Charlotte, North Carolina, Busch, who had placed sixth at Atlanta, was being quickly interrogated on Sunday drive.
“Well, just I landed back in North Carolina after the Atlanta race and someone said, ‘So, Kurt. Tell me about your race.’ So here I go… My boys, crew chief Matt McCall and everybody at Ganassi, were pushing hard and apparently we didn’t pass tech like we were supposed to. So, we had to start in the back and do a drive-through penalty. We were fifth or sixth after we came back out, but we were a lap down and had to race hard to be in the position for the lucky dog. The car was dialed in right from the start and we got our lap back early on. As the race went on, man, just loose – tight – loose – tight, and then ended up P6!”
His delight at the team’s fourth-straight top 10 finish was apparent.
“We’ve been doing really well at finishing strong in the races, and the balance right now in 2020, and with no practice and no time to really do any research and development on the car, it’s all happening during these races,” he says. “Man, Atlanta was a 500-mile race, and it felt like it flew by. It’s a different mentality right now. We’ve all had to adjust to all the changing circumstances that we’re all dealing with.”
Sunday’s Atlanta race marked Kurt Busch’s 694th career NASCAR start over 21 years at the Cup level, and has a unique perspective on the pandemic-era races NASCAR has been running in the southeast.
“Yeah, it’s bizarre in some ways, but yet there is going to be a checkered flag at the end of it and there’s going to be a trophy,” Busch says.
“The biggest thing that we’re missing is our race fans. It is a tough, tough situation to not have their adrenalin and their energy coming from the grandstands. When you see the empty grandstands, my heart goes out to them, but then my heart finds them through the camera lens! We’ve had a tremendous boost in viewership because people are tuning in right now. NASCAR has done an incredible job to put a protocol in place, and to keep us all safe, and to get us out their racing, and kind of showing the light right now for most sports in how to get the job done.”
Whether a fan has watched the recent Cup races on TV, a computer screen or even listened in on a radio, the general feeling is that the racing has been quite good.
“I think so,” Busch agrees. “I think the racing has been great because of the unknowns and the random starting positions and the approach of some teams. Hendrick, for instance, has four different cars. Are they going in there with four different setups to try to gain information.
“Here at Ganassi, Matt Kenseth is getting his feet underneath him and they’re happy to go through big-time changes like steering boxes and pedal ratios and things that you would normally do during a test or a practice session. Matt and the team are having to do all of this during the 500-milers. They’ve got a lot of work to do, and they’re starting to check things off of their list.”
Despite the fact that Kenseth’s hiring came as the result of the dismissal of Kyle Larson, both veteran drivers immediately got into step with another, a dynamic that was hugely helpful to both Ganassi race efforts.
Busch also believes that the combined experience shared between the two former Cup champions has only pushed the team to higher ground. “Yeah, I think the mutual respect is so strong that it has allowed this transition to be as smooth as it has been,” he says. “There is definitely the feeling there of pushing each other and to be as clear as we can in communication . The egos are pushed aside. I think that’s something Chip Ganassi saw with me and Matt Kenseth and why this would work.
“I do like where this has been going with the team and these races. This has all been more of a ‘loveable’ situation – if that’s the right word for it – just because it all reminds me of the days where I carried my driver bag to the grid and jumped into an IROC car and raced with the best of the best. I carried my own gear and just jumped in whatever car with whatever setup and just raced. This has that feel. You show up with your gear and race and have fun. That’s just the spirit that I think I’m carrying through all this with my right now and I think that’s what has led to the great start since we came back.
“I think that if we polish up on some of our weaknesses right now on the No. 1 Monster Energy team, we have better short-run speed because there are so many restarts now. There are have not been many long green flag runs. We can also be a little sharper on pit road and pick up spots, instead of just maintaining or losing them. When you cross over the top six threshold in NASCAR, the car setup and the aero completely changes, so having a fast pit crew and that short run speed are very important tools to have. All of that keeps you in the hunt for those wins.
“I think short-term, we need to continue to build up and fix our weaknesses. I’m also hopeful for the return of fans and autograph sessions and pre-race things on Sunday, because right now, literally, I roll into the track, I self-isolate in my motorhome and then head straight to the grid. I miss my guys. I miss communication face to face, and I’m hopeful that we’re able to start seeing some change come mid-summer. No matter what comes our way, we have to be prepared for the NASCAR playoffs. Whatever tracks end up on the playoff schedule, we have to keep our eye out in far in advance, but to also work on the short term right now.”
Long-term, short-term, fans, no fans, Busch is just happy to be back to racing. And he’s looking to karate legend Bruce Lee to keep his groove on.
“We’ve been consistent and things have fallen our way,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re prepared to meet the opportunity, luck will fall your way. That’s what’s happened to us right now, and yet we know that we have to continue to improve to break through that threshold and challenge for more wins.
“It’s a different world right now. It comes down to adaptability and to not be complacent. When you have that mindset right now, that’s key when there is so much unknown and when there are so many different variables popping up, that’s where each day is a new challenge and you adapt to it and then just roll with it. That was something I read last night about Bruce Lee. He said you have to be like water; you have to be like liquid; you have to flow.”
Next stop: The .526-mile scratch and dent Martinsville oval.
“Martinsville is a good one and a bad one,” Busch says. “It’s a tough one. Again, you have to protect the race car there and keep damage to a minimum. That’s been the trend lately. Guys will actually jockey off of pit road and step on the brake pedal just to try and change the outcome of how you exit pit road, just to get to that inside lane. There are little games that go on. The underground. That’s all part of the strategy at Martinsville.”