2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Steve Addington
Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: 2014+
Best points finish: 1st (2004)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: August 4, 1978
Look up the word “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might see Kurt Busch’s picture next to it. The older of NASCAR’s two Busch brothers, Kurt is often overshadowed by younger brother Kyle, the ultra-talented but hotheaded sometimes-villain of the Cup Series. But make no mistake — Kurt also has the talent, carrying with it his own baggage of temperamental behavior. Busch blew through NASCAR in his early years like a tornado, leaving damage and frustration in his wake despite winning a championship before calming down through a Penske Racing partnership that began in 2006.
The on-track maturity made him a darkhorse during his three Chase appearances in the last five years. Busch was even a trendy pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson in 2010, but despite a solid rapport with crew chief Steve Addington, he bombed in the playoffs. Some claim Penske’s approach for the 2011 postseason needs to change, with the team failing to roll out the new chassis combinations that Hendrick and, more recently, Gibbs have thrived on late in the year. The organization thinks the “status quo” is better, except that’s not true with the CoT. Every slight innovation on the body, however risky, can translate into precious tenths on the track a driver can’t make up in practice with old equipment.
“We need to get a better balance on the car,” Busch said of his 2011 Dodges. “For us, it comes down to getting the front end to work better in the center of the corner.”
That’s a far more balanced statement than his brother, or even the 2005 version of Kurt, would ever give in the face of failure. In public and on the track, this veteran, by and large, races smarter than he used to, keeping him in the good graces of his competitors. That’s no small thing. Busch has raced with more respect — and been treated with more respect — in recent years than in the past, even in his 2004 championship season.
This year opens a new chapter of sorts for Busch. He’ll stay with Penske Racing, where he has eight of 22 career wins and at least one each year since joining the organization, moving from the “flagship” No. 2 Miller Lite machine to the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. Don’t think for a second that’s a demotion; Busch is the guy his new backer wanted, spurning Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress to pair with Penske and his automotive empire in April 2010.
The move leaves Busch with a solid formula: strong financial backing, a car owner dedicated to winning, full factory support from Dodge and a technically brilliant crew chief in Addington, who knows a thing or two about high-maintenance drivers. Under the right circumstances, you have a team that can win, and win often.
However, even the new and improved Kurt Busch can be a handful in private. He often berates his crew on the radio and at the shop, and that can spiral easily into a vicious cycle, because when the driver chooses to criticize instead of communicate, the team can’t fix the problem. A strong start to the race is crucial for Busch, as he struggles to recover in events after taking a step backward.
That teamwork approach is something that has been lacking at Penske, whose No. 2 car has been carrying the organization for years. Busch’s teammates are relatively inexperienced in NASCAR, as Brad Keselowski paired a Nationwide title with ineffective performances in Cup last year. Add in Sam Hornish Jr.’s ineptitude, and Busch had one fewer wins (two) than that duo had top-10 finishes (three). With Hornish unsponsored for 2011, trimming down to two cars — the only full-time, fully funded Dodges — could provide too little information. Considering Penske is switching to Chevy engines for its IndyCar program in 2012, it may lead to a change on the stock car side in the future, and distractions within a program that won’t have Daytona on the brain.
Busch enters 2011 as a proven Chase-worthy driver, but also an underrated commodity. He’s got a long row to hoe, as several other teams ramped up performance in late 2010 while Busch’s team grew stagnant. That can’t happen this year. If Busch can find the consistent focus that eluded him last year, he’s a Chase contender — particularly if he can pick up a couple wins in the regular season. If distracted, he’ll be on the outside looking in.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The older Busch brother has had much of his thunder stolen by the younger, but Kurt has earned more respect in the garage. “He’s a past champion,” says another crew chief in the 2009 Chase. “Kurt is a force to be reckoned with as a driver, and last year that team started the season looking like a real contender. It didn’t work out at all in the Chase, but I think Kurt and Steve Addington make a great combination.”
A fellow crew chief says of Addington, “He’s a good crew chief for a veteran driver. Steve’s patient, works hard and knows how to lay down the law if need be. But working with a driver is ‘give and take’ with him, and that kind of crew chief is what Kurt needs.”
Looking at Checkers: Looked particularly strong on the intermediates last year ...
Pretty Solid Pick: ... but is so versatile, it could be the shorts or the flats in 2010.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hasn’t won on a plate track yet, but he’s got a knack for missing the big wreck.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Will have to battle Kansas twice this year.
Insider Tip: Busch manages to collect a couple of wins every year one way or another. His four victories the last two years have come on the 1.5-milers.
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Laps Led: 842
Laps Completed: 10,540
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.1
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 5th
Final Points Standing: 11th
Driver Rating: 91.0 (10th)