|Kurt Busch was fastest in Daytona pre-season testing in January (Getty)|
Busch begins his 12th full Sprint Cup season driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing, a team unlike any other he has driven for in the Sprint Cup Series.
While most NASCAR teams are based within 10 or 20 miles of the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C., Phoenix Racing is located in Spartanburg, S.C., about 80 miles to the southwest. They aren’t a big team and have a smaller shop and fewer employees than most full-time organizations. But, they do more with less, and that’s just fine with Busch, who has never been afraid to roll up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty.
Since joining Phoenix Racing in late December 2011, Busch has made the 80-minute drive from his home in Mooresville, N.C., to the Phoenix Racing shop two or three times a week. And during those drives, Busch has discovered that going simple has brought more fun.
He’s as relaxed and loose as ever before and has quickly endeared himself to the tight-knit group at Phoenix Racing that was thrilled to hear that a Sprint Cup champion and 24-race winner wanted to race for them.
Busch has not only spent his time at the shop getting to know his new teammates, he’s helped them prepare the cars – specifically the No. 51 TAG Heuer Avant-Garde Eyewear Chevrolet Impala Busch will pilot in the non-points Budweiser Shootout Saturday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, and the No. 51 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Impala he will use in the 54th Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 at Daytona.
He’s even helping the team assemble the No. 51 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Impala he will drive in the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Feb. 25 at Daytona.
While Busch is having fun, he knows that racing can be a lot of fun when winning is involved. And he and Phoenix Racing should be contenders at Daytona. Phoenix Racing’s lone Sprint Cup victory came at Daytona’s sister track, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, in April 2009 with Brad Keselowski driving, while Busch has 12 top-10 finishes in 22 point-paying starts at Daytona, including runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Last year, he won the Budweiser Shootout and the first of the two 150-mile Gatorade Duel qualifying races.
It’s a new year with an old-school look for Busch, but he’s chasing a new prize that exudes the old-school lore of Daytona – the Harley J. Earl Trophy, awarded to the winner of the Daytona 500.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 51 TAG Heuer Avant-Garde Eyewear/HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Impala for Phoenix Racing:
Is this old-school racing for you?
“Yeah, this is old-school racing the way James Finch (owner, Phoenix Racing) does it. He has a lot of fun, but he’s serious about it. Because we have Hendrick motors and chassis, the bodies are subbed out to a group that builds them off the recipe from Hendrick engineers. So there is a great deal of support but, also, there is that laid-back attitude of, ‘Let’s go to the track and have some fun.’”
|Kurt Busch won the Bud Shootout last season (Getty)|
“Well, it’s a fast racecar. It was 206 mph down there in Daytona, and that’s with that Hendrick power. To have that under the hood, to have the years of experience that I have, plus James Finch, he’s full-tilt when it comes to Daytona and Talladega. So that is our best opportunity to win races this year. Then you get to places like Bristol, where it’s not an aerodynamic track. It’s more of an even playing field, plus it’s one of my favorite racetracks. I look at those opportunities to try to crack into victory lane.”
What are your expectations for the season?
“Expectations for us are going to be one week at a time. There are going to be little victories we take in, whether it’s finishing 15th and putting a car back in the hauler without a scratch on it, or contending for the win at Daytona. We have two really good bullets right now – our superspeedway car for Daytona, and we have a car that came from Hendrick that has a ton of R&D stuff on it. So I need to protect that car when we take it to (Las) Vegas. At Vegas, you want that car again in a couple weeks at California. So we’ve got to take care of that baby right now and, hopefully, we’ll get a few more built like that.”
Will that affect your driving style?
“It’s just racing smart, racing old-school. It’s like my dad’s race team, where we had one Legends car and, if we wrecked it, we couldn’t race it the next week unless we had enough parts. And, if you wreck it too much, it costs you too much to get to the racetrack. So, it’s going to be that balance of understanding how to get the best out of the car for that day, whether it’s 15th or, if we have a shot at a top-10, make sure I still protect that car because we need to bring it back in a few weeks to race it again.”
Talk about working with Phoenix Racing.
“It’s a really neat group of guys. Everybody works so hard because we have so little compared to the big teams, but we have what we need to compete with the big teams. Finch puts in a great effort. Right now, it’s just a one‑year deal, a handshake deal. Don’t even have a contract. It’s just all verbal. We trust each other. And this has taught me a lot about how deals used to be done in the past. Even going to lunch with him. We end up over at the Peach Blossom and we’re hanging out and there’s Bud Moore, there’s Cotton Owens. This is the old-school fun of hanging out with the South Carolina boys.”
What ultimately led you to decide to drive for Phoenix Racing?
“I think it’s just the overall perception of his program. There is the fun built into it but, at the same time, it’s serious. When you have Hendrick equipment, it gives you that motivation to do well while having the fun.”
Felix Sabates and other owners offered you some advice in the offseason. Talk about that.
“Yeah, I leaned on quite a few car owners for advice, for help, as well. If there are any leads on sponsor dollars. We were trying to talk with other guys. Even having a sit-down with King Richard (Petty) in Level Cross, N.C. I was just in awe going into his office, having the wood-paneled walls and how old-school that was. Talking with a bunch of different owners and key people in the sport. It was a lot of fun dealing with some of the tough deals behind the scenes. Felix Sabates stuck his neck out with me to try to help with Finch, and I owe a lot to Felix for helping make this deal happen. Even Rick Hendrick, who had to give the blessing, because this is his equipment and these are his cars, more or less, that Finch buys from him. But they’re all connected together.”
Talk about your chances for victory in the Daytona 500.
“I mean, anybody can win. Last year with the repave job, it took all the handling away from Daytona. It just went to raw speed. Trevor Bayne showed that. He put himself in position to win and he got the deal done. Danica Patrick, it can happen to her. It can happen to anybody. We just have to get to the end of the race. We have to protect our car and be in position for what I would anticipate with the green-white-checkered (finish). So that’s whether we get the car separated as far as the draft or, if they’re together, we’re going to have that green-white-checkered and it’s going to be pushed like crazy with the guy in front of you no matter what.”
Later this season, you will team up with your brother Kyle to drive Nationwide Series races for Kyle Busch Motorsports (KBM). Talk about that.
“It’s going to be incredible. To have Monster Energy Drink in there supporting me, it’s great to see their fraternity of athletes. The extreme game guys are always edgy. That’s what Kyle and I are. So, it’s a perfect fit on the sponsor front. We have the responsibility of trying to run for an owner title, so the two of us are really going to draw attention.”
What are you plans as far as a schedule for the Nationwide Series this year?
“We’re trying to iron out all the details. Kyle’s going to start the season off with four, maybe five races. I hope to jump in at Texas. That’s where I made my debut in the Nationwide Series. Hopefully, we’ll get it all ironed out and have some fun with it. Then I’ll probably take the bulk of the schedule later in the year.”
Can you talk about your relationship with Roger Penske since you left his team?
“It was a great departure the way we handled it. I e-mailed Roger the other day on when we’re going to get together for dinner down at Daytona. I have no regrets and I can’t thank him enough for the time we spent together.”
What has your offseason been like?
“It’s been a busy offseason with early morning, 6 a.m., all the way until late evenings, sometimes past 10 p.m., just week‑in and week‑out of making calls, talking with sponsors. Of course, trying to find a place to go and race. Just with the way everything has come together, it’s been an amazing offseason. I’m just stoked to get to the track, have the fun with Finch, work hard with it, as well as support my little brother and get KBM on the map as far as what he wants to do in Nationwide.”
You’ve been to every Major League Baseball stadium. Are you planning on going to the new Miami Marlins Ballpark this year?
“I have to get to the new Marlins Ballpark, and both New York stadiums are new since I’ve been on my little tour. This is going to be a busy year. I was telling the fans at the Sprint fan event we did a few weeks ago that I’m running 38 Cup races. We have yet to decide on the full Nationwide schedule. But it’s going to be close to 20 Nationwide races. That’s almost 60 races in one year. So that’s going to keep me busy. That’s going to be a good workload to have. Might not be visiting as many baseball parks this is year.”
- True Speed Communication for Phoenix Racing