Kurt Busch kicked off 2017 by winning the Daytona 500 — and ended it not knowing for sure if he had a ride for 2018. In between, he raced the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing to a 14th-place points finish after the team declined to pick up a 2018 option while awaiting word on sponsorship from Monster Energy.
In an eleventh-hour deal, Busch inked a new contract with SHR, with Monster backing. He received offers from other teams, but none of SHR’s caliber, according to Busch. Now he’s got his seat secured and looks to rebound in 2018.
Yes, rebound. Despite the Daytona 500 win — one of the most coveted in the sport — and the playoff spot, Busch didn’t put together the kind of season he’s capable of, scoring a mediocre (among playoff drivers) six top 5s and 15 top 10s. His 16 laps led were a career low in his 17 full-time seasons in the Cup Series; it was only the second time he didn’t lead at least 100 laps. Busch turns 40 in August. If he’s going to make another title run, it likely needs to happen soon.
SHR puts top equipment under Busch — Ford has spared no expense in helping its teams perform. Roush Yates engines are powerful and reliable. Now, with Monster returning, the resources of the sport’s title sponsor keep this team financially stable.
Where they’ll have to readjust in 2018 is the crew chief position. Citing a wish to get off the road, veteran Tony Gibson was reassigned in December and replaced by Billy Scott. Scott has spent the last two years as head wrench for Danica Patrick; overall, he remains without a Cup Series win after 141 races on the job. Can Busch mesh with a new, partially unproven mechanic? Remember, he struggled at times in his first Stewart-Haas Racing season in 2014, aggressive toward the crew and young Daniel Knost until the old school, no-nonsense Gibson reigned him in on the radio.
The question mark at SHR seems to be whether four cars are too many to keep them all at a championship-caliber level. The organization is far from alone; it’s rare that a four-car stable can keep all four running at an optimal level over time. Last year saw two SHR drivers, Busch and Kevin Harvick, make the playoffs. Harvick went the distance, making the title hunt at Homestead and finishing third, while Busch fell out after one round. Clint Bowyer just missed the cut, and Danica Patrick was far behind her teammates.
This year, the team adds journeyman Aric Almirola, who replaces Patrick in the No. 10. Almirola has run well in lesser equipment and should bring solid skills and detailed information to the table. If Almirola can bump up the performance in that department, it will help the entire organization. And if Bowyer can keep the No. 14 on an upward trajectory and make the playoffs, it will only help Busch improve as well. It’s unrealistic to think the team will have four true title contenders in 2018, but it’s equally shortsighted to believe they won’t see any growth.
Busch needs to improve their strategy for the stage racing game. Busch didn’t have a stage win in 2017, while the drivers who made the final cut had at least half a dozen. Top 10s in stages are also worth points, and that can make the difference in qualifying for the playoffs if you don’t have a win on your résumé. Busch was stronger in that department, scoring extra points 29 times last season.
Busch has the talent to make another title run to back up his 2004 championship. It’s unlikely to happen this year, but a better finish than last year is an attainable goal.