For a guy who has a reputation for being volatile and over the top, Kurt Busch is flying under the radar at Stewart-Haas Racing. He didn’t have the stellar 2016 season Kevin Harvick did. He didn’t have a retirement tour like Tony Stewart. And he doesn’t garner the attention that Danica Patrick does. Busch won only one race in 2016, and his two poles came by the third race. Still, he had a good season when all was said and done. His 21 top-10 runs tied a career high (2016 was his fourth time hitting that mark). He finished all but two races, and only Kasey Kahne completed more laps than Busch.
It was also a season without controversy, resulting in Busch’s best points finish since 2009. The biggest ripple was Busch’s offseason marriage to Ashley Van Metre, a far cry from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll’s domestic violence allegations that got him suspended three races in 2015.
Looking ahead, his Stewart-Haas Racing organization has two major changes on the horizon.
The first is a new teammate as Clint Bowyer replaces Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car. Stewart plans to be at the tracks in his ownership capacity many weeks, but having Bowyer behind the wheel represents a big change — he and his teammates will have to feel each other out and learn each other’s driving and communication styles in order to work together effectively. Bowyer brings elite-level talent and an outgoing personality to the table, but there will be an adjustment period for the organization.
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The biggest change, though, comes as the team switches from Chevrolet to Ford. That means baseline chassis differences, to the point the team spent much of the fall and offseason hanging bodies and transitioning to the new cars. For four teams, that’s a daunting task. While the current car minimizes differences between manufacturers, there will be growing pains, especially since only one of the team’s drivers has driven a Ford — Busch, who won the 2004 title driving one for Roush Fenway Racing.
With the switch comes a change from Hendrick power to Roush Yates engines. Roush Yates powers Fords, including those of title contender Team Penske. It would appear to be a lateral move in the engine department. Where the team will benefit is from added support from the manufacturer. They’ll have whatever they need, and Ford’s research and development facility in Concord, N.C., provides them with plenty to draw from, including a top-of-the-line simulator that other Ford drivers have used to their benefit. If Busch and his teammates don’t excel every step of the way, it won’t be due to lack of help from Ford.
One of the reasons for Busch’s renewed strength is crew chief Tony Gibson. Gibson joined Busch at the tail end of 2014. He wasn’t meshing with Patrick, and Busch and Daniel Knost weren’t clicking either. Busch and Gibson work well together; both are veterans who know how to make a car go fast, and Gibson deals with the volatile Busch well, and that’s important. When things aren’t going well for Busch, communication breaks down, and the resulting berating of his crew on the radio doesn’t help anyone.
Sponsor Monster Energy stepped up its commitment in the sport in a big way, taking over NASCAR's Premier Series sponsorship rights from Sprint, but it remains committed to Busch for now. Team co-owner Gene Haas will round out the schedule with his Haas Automation brand. One key fact to watch is Busch’s contract, expiring after this season. Will Monster resign with a 39-year-old or look to go younger, forcing SHR’s hand on the veteran driver?
Busch looks to be a Chase factor on consistency again in 2017. He’s not likely to reel off several wins or run in the top 5 every week, but he’s a safe bet to make the playoffs, and he’s capable of going deep if he does. He’ll have to reinvent himself a bit to be a title contender, but he will make his competition work for it as well.