Kurt Busch is a little like cracking open a fortune cookie — you never know what you’re going to find inside. The 2014 season was a wild roller-coaster ride for the driver who joined Stewart-Haas Racing after spending two seasons in relative exile with single-car teams following his release by Team Penske. When Busch was good in 2014, he was very good, as evidenced by his spring Martinsville win, where he outdrove Jimmie Johnson, owner of eight Martinsville grandfather clocks, in the closing laps for the victory. He posted top finishes at several of the sport’s toughest tracks, including Pocono, Daytona, Bristol and Watkins Glen.
But when Busch was bad, he was horrid. Collecting more finishes of 28th or worse than he had top 10s, Busch finished in the back 15 a dozen times. He failed to finish altogether six times, matching his number of top-5 finishes. His average finish was a lowly 18.9, and he’d have missed the Chase entirely if not for that Martinsville win. There was no one factor to pinpoint; there were mechanical failures, crashes, pit mistakes and sometimes simple bad luck. It wasn’t something that the team could easily fix.
But there’s also no good reason why Busch should be condemned to repeat last season’s struggles. He has all the resources a successful team needs and is an immensely talented driver when focused. With limited practice and no prior experience, Busch scored a top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. The man has long been capable of winning races, but, at some point, he needs to find a way to make his own luck.
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In a surprise late-season move, SHR chose to swap crew chiefs between the teams of Busch and Danica Patrick, sending veteran Tony Gibson to Busch’s camp. Busch performed well in his limited time with Gibson, posting two top 10s in three races with his new crew chief at the helm. If the pairing continues to be successful, it could spur a turnaround for Busch, who has steady backing from Haas Automation, the multi-million-dollar business owned by team co-owner Gene Haas. Busch is a proven asset at SHR, and he has worked well with his three teammates despite early speculation that there were too many tempers to make a cohesive team.
There is, however, a cloud of uncertainty surrounding Busch. In November, he was accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend, and the outcome of any legal proceedings could impact both the driver’s future with SHR and in the sport. NASCAR could elect to suspend Busch for one or more races, which would render him ineligible for the Chase, or the governing body could even force his release from SHR. Busch has burned enough bridges in his career that it could be difficult for him to find another top ride.
Provided Busch runs the entire season, there’s no reason he can’t win races and build championship-type consistency. Distractions appear to be a problem, though, and have made keeping his job — not winning a NASCAR title — the short-term priority.
Don’t trust Martinsville Busch’s lone win in 2014 came at Martinsville, but that was an apparent aberration considering his recent performances at the facility. Prior to his win, his most recent top-5 finish there had come in 2004.
Green-flag pit cycle improvement Last year, Busch was saddled with rookie crew chief Daniel Knost, who cost Busch 41 positions during green-flag pit cycles at non-restrictor plate ovals. His new crew chief, Tony Gibson, cost Danica Patrick 15 such positions. It’s still a loss, but it’s better than what Busch previously had.
Not much of a leader Unlike his brother Kyle, Busch doesn’t pad his laps-led tally. He has never, in his 15-year Cup Series career, led more than 1,000 laps in a season. He led 687 laps combined over the last three years.
No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsor: Haas Automation
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2016
Best Points Finish: 1st (2004)
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: Aug. 4, 1978
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.