Kurt Busch made NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup history, already, in 2013. By qualifying for this year’s NASCAR postseason, he gave the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team its first, ever, Chase berth, making the team the first single-car team to make the Chase in the championship format’s 10-year history. Furniture Row is also the first team not based in the Charlotte, N.C., area to make the Chase.
This weekend, the Chase for the Sprint Cup resumes at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for the Sylvania 300, the second race in the 10-race series. Busch, still winless on the year, dominated at NHMS earlier this year before a wreck took him out of the race in the final third of the event.
On Tuesday, Busch participated in a NASCAR teleconference to discuss Furniture Row Racing and his hopes of claiming a second Cup title. Here’s a transcript:
Q. Kurt, your team is one of the few teams located outside the Charlotte hub. How big of a deal is it you were not only able to make the Chase but look like a true championship-contending team?
KURT BUSCH: Well it has been a significant challenge for the team logistically to operate in Colorado, but other than that, it’s business as usual. You see our crew chief, our lead engineer, full-on assembly group of guys, some hanging bodies, some repairing crash damages. You see the motor tuner, the motor assembly. There’s a chassis dyno, seven-post rigs, so it’s a bona fide program and we have all the right people, and it was just a matter of having everything fall into place with the performances on track, and we’ve been able to do that. It’s been a very successful season and we’re in the Chase and we don’t want it to stop there. We want it to keep going.
Q. I just wanted to ask you about the unique position you find yourself in being a one-car operation, no teammates really to speak of in this Chase. Is that a hindrance or is it an all-in-one effort for your team going into the Chase?
KURT BUSCH: You know, one thing that is a strong suit that I’ve noticed with this whole situation is the independence and being able to navigate through some of these waters a bit more aggressively as well as we can steer our ship in a quicker direction and not have to report back to a big mother ship, so to speak. So being able to just navigate and get things implemented into the cars quickly is so refreshing.
A couple weeks ago we were at Atlanta, which is a bumpy, rough racetrack. We found a couple items and we had those in our car by Chicago two weeks later. Those are the types of things that — and that freedom, that helps a single-car team.
Q. In terms of making this Chase, I know for you it’s especially gratifying, but there was some emotion there that you showed once you did make that. I mean, where did that come from?
KURT BUSCH: The big emotion Saturday night in Richmond when we locked into the Chase was little Houston. It’s Patricia’s eight year old, and I’m an adopted step dad with him. He had a summer-long list of things he wanted to do, ride his go-kart, go camping, fishing, just things that an eight year old would want to do, play video games. He said he wanted to bungee jump, but we had to drop that off the list. But one thing that I didn’t get done for him that he had on his list, he wanted to go to victory lane, and I didn’t win yet this year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and ran very limited Nationwide races, three as a matter of fact, and didn’t get to victory lane. So I felt like getting him to the Chase stage was that moment for us to share together, so I lived up as a step dad to his expectations.
Q. Will you bring him to New Hampshire?
KURT BUSCH: The custody calendar has us juggling him the rest of the year, and we try to keep him at just the East Coast races, and so his father him on the weekends we don’t and we do have him though for New Hampshire and that’s a great race for us because we ran well there earlier this year and led a lot of laps. Looking forward to New Hampshire this weekend and coming up to the New England area and just trying to continue on the success level of this Chase so far.
Q. You talked about not having a teammate, but do you view your brother as kind of a de facto teammate in a sense?
KURT BUSCH: He’s definitely a genuine teammate in life in the way that we talk to each other and share information about what we see on the racetrack. Yes, I can lean on him and he leans on me for that. And then there’s a small exchange with Kevin Harvick, two-fold: One is he races with RCR, and we’re a team that’s paired up through them with an engineering alliance as well as what we’re doing next year in 2014 as teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing. The two of us have definitely bonded this summer in that fashion.
Q. Obviously we know about your future for next year, and I wanted to ask you a little bit about Furniture Row racing. The first question is what kind of a driver do you see fitting in and filling your shoes there? Do you think it needs to be somebody that can bring some experience, or do you think that’s a real prime place for a young guy to come in and see what he can do?
KURT BUSCH: I think the level of driver that they’re looking for would be somebody with experience as well as somebody that has the potential to grow into whom would best fit that role. But we’re starting to run out of those experienced drivers, such as Juan Pablo Montoya. He’s made that announcement this week that he’s going to Penske with an IndyCar program, and you’re now looking at guys like a David Ragan as a veteran or a Scott Speed. One of the dark horses that nobody is really looking at that I think would be a good candidate is a Josh Wise. But the list can go on and on. You have Blaney’s son, you have Truex Jr., there’s probably — everybody that wants a Chase ride, I mean, this is a Chase car, I’m sure their phone is ringing off the hook, and I’m not mentioning the right names. But I see a young guy fitting in over there that can grow with the team just based off of what I’ve seen with their negotiations.
Q. What do you think is next for this team? What do you think is maybe something that they need to look at that you think this slight improvement will maybe mean the difference between winning races on a more weekly basis? I know obviously you’ve gotten them into the Chase and they’re vying for the championship, but what do you think is kind of the next step? What’s the missing link for them?
KURT BUSCH: I wish I knew because I’d implement it right now and we’d go to New Hampshire with it. I feel like we’re a 95-percent team. We have a lot of tools that are strong. We go to the racetrack each week with raw speed. Our pit crew has improved, but we’re missing that last five percent, and I don’t know where it’s coming from, and if we had it, I think we could drive into victory lane with it next week with it.
They’re a fantastic team. They have a lot of well-roundedness to them, and there’s just a couple small areas that I think that they could improve. But I don’t know exactly what to do to pinpoint it.
Q. You entered the Chase with no wins, so you were a lower seed. You look at a situation like Earnhardt and Logano who had situations at Chicagoland, and you don’t have that 15-point buffer that Kenseth does or your brother. Can you win the championship by using up one of those mulligans, or do you have to be perfect all 10 weeks to have a realistic shot?
KURT BUSCH: You know, the best way to explain this, because there’s a lot of us in the South that love SEC football, and every one of us has a team that we would root for. If you find yourself early in the season with one loss, your hope is that the other groups of guys beat up on each other and everybody has got one loss. When that happens, then you have a legitimate shot at getting back in this for a championship run. So until everybody has one loss or one big moment, no, there’s no way they can overcome that.
Q. Real quick, let’s just go back to New Hampshire. You’ve got three wins there and a lot of top-5 finishes. How do you attack that course? How do you like to run it?
KURT BUSCH: I like to run the long runs there at New Hampshire, making your car work for 100 laps at a time I think is key with some of the strategy that’s been played there the last few years on pitting and then running long distances. With that said, you cannot sacrifice short-run speed, and that’s where I think our Furniture Row car got in trouble in the first race is that our car was a bit too vulnerable, we couldn’t be aggressive on restarts and we got spun around by Kenseth, our championship leader, earlier this year. We have to protect our car better on short-run speed and still have that long-run speed in case it comes back to play.
Q. Just back to your independent status, are you a little bemused by some of the sanctions handed down about collusions among teammates there?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, nobody can pin it on me. We’re scot-free and worked our way in independently to be a part of this Chase. There’s different things that you want to do as a team and to help a teammate and then there’s a line that’s drawn. At the end of the day you have to worry about your car number, your team, your people and how your people are reacting.
Q. All NASCAR drivers seem to be optimistic before the season starts, and when I spoke to you in Charlotte for the Sprint media tour you were optimistic, but did you really see a Chase spot coming, and was 2013 just a race-to-race routine for you that you would normally do?
KURT BUSCH: Last year in 2012 I finished with Furniture Row Racing with three top 10s out of six races, and that type of performance level is Chase material.
Now, that’s only six weeks, though. You have to do it over 26 weeks. And so half the races, if you finish them in the top 10, that’s Chase material, and we did that. We had exactly that number. We had 13 top-10 finishes. So I felt like, yes, we could make the Chase. I was very optimistic. Yes, it is week to week, but our team wasn’t Chase-ready the first five, six weeks of the season, and so I lumped it into five, six chunk races, and once we cleared that, then I looked at the next six and what had to happen for small optimum goals then, and then bridge it into the next six. So by race 18, you better be Chase ready because you only have eight weeks from that point to tie it together perfectly to make the Chase.
Q. And how would you compare it to all the ups and downs that you’ve gone through in your championship in the past, all the changes that you’ve made to be able to do this?
KURT BUSCH: You know, with this small team, it’s a big accomplishment, and for me it’s very satisfying to have bounced back and put this group in Chase contention. It’s like a top-five moment, with my career, with a championship, and big wins, consistency over the years, making seven out of 10 Chases, this year was a significant top-five type moment.
Q. Over the last few weeks it seems like I’ve noticed you are one of the most aggressive drivers on restarts, and I just would like to hear how you would describe the importance of kind of stepping up, particularly at that time, and has this restart rule that’s been handed down over the weekend impacted the way you approach restarts at all?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I think it was the fact that our backs were up against the wall about four weeks ago with our points situation and making the Chase, and I was aggressive on restarts to gain those spots back after some poor pit stops, and it turned out to bear fruit and gave us the points we needed to make the Chase.
I mean, we made the Chase by 12 points. That’s a decent margin. But I passed nine guys on one restart in Atlanta being on the aggressive side.
So restarts are important. I think now it’s in the forefront for everybody with the rule change and how we’re seeing races won, on how important it is on that final restart, which we never do know the final restart until it is maybe that last green-white checkered, but every restart has important positions to be gained or you can easily lose them. It’s a new dimension in our sport that I think is gaining a lot of attention, and teams are looking at how they can benefit around it.
Q. I saw a stat that showed that you and Casey Mears are tied with the most times caught speeding on pit road with seven, and I was kind of wondering if you’ve analyzed that to hopefully limit that down the stretch here so it won’t hurt you as you’re trying to win the championship?
KURT BUSCH: That’s pretty sweet. I’ll take that as not a top-5 moment, but I’ll take that. You’ve got to get a stat in something.
All kidding aside, Chicago was a bogus thing in my mind because my tach was green all the way down pit road. There’s times when it might flicker red and then you hold your breath to see if you’re going to get by the police, in a sense. Chicago was all green, never expected to be called in, and we were.
What that means is we’re setting our pit road tachometer too aggressively and too close to the margin, so we just have to be more conservative. The thing that has to be clear internally with Furniture Row Racing is that the guy setting the tach isn’t going conservative on his own and then I’m going doubly conservative to make sure we’re not too conservative once we’re out performing, because we have to perform in this Chase. We can’t lose spots on pit road with slow pit stops and we can’t lose spots on pit road driving too slow in a speed zone.
Q. How tough is that for you since obviously every pit road is different?
KURT BUSCH: It’s not tough for me. We just need to do a better job at filtering through our tachometer settings. But the way that our sport has evolved, if I can stand on a soapbox real quick, we have a gear selection that’s given to us by NASCAR, a tire size that’s given to us, we have an ECU unit, the electronic control unit, can tell us what rpm we need to run down pit road. Why not put a button on the steering wheel that keeps us more focused on crew members on pit road and not chancing how fast we’re going and taking attention from where safety needs to be?
Q. Just a follow-up on some of the topics we were discussing regarding the teamwork. A broader issue here, we saw some of the rulings that came down last week that kind of were brought about to mitigate some of the manipulation of the outcome of races like Richmond by teammates where you’re having unseemly things taking place on the track. As a driver do you feel it puts you in an untenable situation to have to field the team order, and then hypothetically speaking, would a driver have to wrestle with countermanding the team order because he feels it’s not good for him or his outcome, and are you glad that NASCAR kind of drew the line and said this is what’s not allowed and this is what is allowed?
KURT BUSCH: Well, I can just tell you with all the experiences I’ve been through in the past that I am relieved that I’m on a single-car team, that we raced our way into the Chase and did this all on our own without any type of controversy. I have never been on this side of it to see how sick it gets and how awkward it can feel and just the genuine interest level that is away from the racing side of it can be extreme.
These teams that were on the bubble put themselves in a position over those 26 weeks to not be locked in, and that’s the whole point of what I’m trying to say is you have 26 weeks, why don’t you try to run better, get yourself locked in, so with two weeks to go you’re on easy street. But team orders are a Catch 22. You’re trying to do your own thing independently for your own car number, and at the same time there’s a master name that’s on the building, and so you have to adhere to what the general manager or the team president is going to tell you to do, and sometimes you’ve got to do what’s right for your own self, sometimes you’ve got to do what the team tells you to do.
Q. In terms of just the broader issue of teamwork, how does that manifest itself on the track? I asked Matt Kenseth this earlier. Certainly you exemplified what a great teammate does for another at Daytona when you helped him win the 500, but in terms of that even at a carburetor restrictor plate, is it tough to really enact teamwork out there?
KURT BUSCH: You know, when I was a teammate with Matt Kenseth at Roush Racing, I adopted the philosophy early in my career on let’s race one day a week, but we’re going to work together six days out of the week. So when you have team communication and information going back and forth, you’re there to make both programs stronger, or however many cars are in your stable stronger, and then on the seventh day everybody goes and races for themselves.
Q. We’ve all followed your ups and downs the last few years from Penske to James Finch to Furniture Row, and you’ve been beaten down seemingly by everybody in the sport, but one thing that I’ve noticed this year is everyone has sort of rallied around you, and the perception has changed maybe with the underdog status and seeing how you’ve humbled yourself and you’ve gone back to really enjoy racing. What, if anything, have you noticed in terms of the reaction and the treatment you’ve been getting from fans and even your fellow drivers?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it’s been a long journey, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I chose to settle into this program with working with Phoenix Racing and finding that genuine fun of what it meant to go back to the racetrack because of all the distractions, requirements and monotonous things and situations that kept developing with a big team like at Penske Racing. So it was great to get a breath of fresh air, roll up my sleeves blue-collar style and work with the guys, and then to do the same thing with the Furniture Row group who’s a step up from where that Phoenix Racing team was and then to try to get the results side of it back, and we’ve done that. So it’s been neat to have those small goals set forth, and then to achieve those goals, and then to set new ones.
And ultimately we want to be in victory lane, and making the Chase was a great feather in the cap, and it’s been a nice road back, and all along, though, it’s been about having fun and working with the crew guys and letting a story be told without people’s visceral opinions changing the way that things are really actually unfolding.
Q. Have you noticed maybe any reaction changing from the fans, whether it’s through driver introductions or things that they’ve had a chance to say to you when they’ve greeted or you seen you at the track?
KURT BUSCH: The number one thing that, as I said, I’m not looking for as far as attention and recognition. It’s just the work with the military, and seeing men and women who are in uniform and coming up and shaking my hand or giving my girlfriend Patricia a hug who’s the president of the Armed Forces Foundation, it means a lot, and she says that she’s never seen this type of reaction, where people are genuinely going out of their way to say thank you. It means that we’re making a difference and we’re helping our military families who have sacrificed so much and served for our country that they want to come to the racetrack and be part of the NASCAR Troops to the Track program as well as if they’re just a fan and they’re a military member they come up because they’re seeing that Patricia’s foundation is making a difference.
Q. Would it be safe to say that Kurt Busch is back? Are you back to being comfortable in your own skin and back to being the driver and maybe the man that you want to be? Everything is going pretty well for you right now.
KURT BUSCH: It’s going great, just success on the racetrack is one thing and getting your priorities in life in order is another thing, and sometimes you have to take a step back to make two steps forward.
Q. During the race there seems to be lots of drivers having all sorts of issues. How does a driver manage their stuff in that situation knowing that you could be the next driver to have an issue or a problem?
KURT BUSCH: Well, around every corner is an opportunity for success or failure. In this day and age things move so quick that something does pop up, you’ve got to roll with it, and you have to react and make educated decisions on what’s going to happen next and how to recover as quickly as you can from those mishaps. So your team can help you or your driver’s experience can help you. Lady luck can get involved; you never know. But the more you’ve been through it, the better you should be able to deal with it.
Q. How does a driver turn not having a ride from a negative way to a positive way, and once a driver finds a ride, what sort of things will you do or a driver do to kind of get an idea of how the other organization is ran at the racetrack?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it’s just a matter of keeping your spirits up and knowing that around the next corner is a potential new opportunity, and when you get that new opportunity you have to take it slow and learn the people, learn the system, and at the same time try to implement the experiences that you have on what it takes to find success on the racetrack and produce those results.
Q. I just have a quick question for you. How excited are you for a shot at the Cup this year?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it’s been an amazing ride, and to make the Chase with a single-car team was a nice accomplishment and something very gratifying, and now here we are one week into it and we have a nice top-5 finish. We need nine more of those along with a win. So I’m looking forward to the challenge. What keeps me even more hungry this year is that we haven’t won yet, and I know we’re capable of doing it, and here it is. The Chase, it’s the most important time to win, so it would be great to see it all come together.
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR