There’s only one full-time driver left in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series who directly connects to Dale Earnhardt’s era: Kurt Busch, the 40-year-old starting his 19th full-time season in NASCAR’s top division. Busch made his first seven starts in 2000 and saw his full-time career begin in 2001. Approaching 650 career starts, Busch is showing no signs of declining talent. He says he’s still filled with an innate desire to compete and win.
“My heart that I grew up with in racing is there,” Busch says. “It’s still fueled by the passion, because that fire-in-the-belly desire is there.”
It would have been no surprise, however, if Busch had walked away before this season. He’s battled tooth and nail in the last two offseasons to hold a spot in one of the sport’s top-tier teams while the economics of team ownership have pivoted to younger, cheaper drivers. Last year, he managed to stay in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 for another season despite the headwinds and rewarded the team with a win at Bristol and advancement to the third round of the playoffs — but it wasn’t enough for him to keep his seat.
Nevertheless, Busch is back for 2019. He built a relationship with Chip Ganassi’s team and brought enough sponsorship from Monster Energy to take over the No. 1 Chevrolet. In Busch’s mind, that gives him another chance to use the higher education he’s gained from nearly two decades of Cup competition.
“The knowledge that I have and the Ph.D. of experience that I have with all this — it’s too soon to hang up the racing helmet,” Busch says.
At the top of Busch’s wish list for this season is nailing down wins at two tracks where he’s been close before: Darlington Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A Darlington win would be the first for a Ganassi-owned operation since Sterling Marlin won for the team at the South Carolina track in 2002.
It’s been six full Cup seasons since Jamie McMurray drove the No. 1 team to a Cup win, and nine seasons since the team won on a non-plate track. But Busch brings some sterling recent results that could invigorate the Chevrolet team. Last year, he had the series’ third-best average running position, the fifth-highest rank of restart speed and the third-best average finish. McMurray was no higher than 16th in any of those categories.
Of course, the 2019 season has become hard to predict thanks to the new rules package that will reduce engine power and substantially increase downforce at most races. Busch predicts that the rules could create unexpected tire issues and acknowledges that he’d prefer that the horsepower not be taken away. But his experience could bring an advantage at places where you’d expect Busch to be strong.
“It’s gonna play into the short track experience that I have because the engine stays the same, but you have more downforce to help the tire grab the track better,” Busch says. “In places like Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville, Loudon, Dover, Phoenix — the tracks like that where you have the horsepower and the downforce — that blends into what I started with a lot in the mid-2000s.”
Busch is also ready to avenge the disappointment of last season’s playoffs, when a crash with Denny Hamlin in Phoenix knocked him from title contention.
“You just can’t be caught in those positions, and that was because we had our back against the wall and we basically had to win Phoenix,” Busch says. “I wish we could have had more bonus points. I wish we could have been able to win Martinsville or able to win Texas, but when it gets down to that last moment, that’s what it’s all about.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 25/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)