If your struggling race team is looking for a quick fix, cut a check to Kurt Busch. Twice now — first in 2013 with Furniture Row Racing and then last season with Chip Ganassi Racing — Busch has taken over driving duties for a middling team in the NASCAR Cup Series and proceeded to thoroughly raise the team’s performance.
Last season, Busch stepped into Ganassi’s No. 1 Chevrolet in place of Jamie McMurray, and the performance gains on the stat sheet were eye-popping. Busch scored the first non-restrictor plate win for the No. 1 car since 2010, tripled the team’s top-5 finish output (six) and raised its year-over-year average finish by nearly six positions.
Ask Busch to explain how the season came together, and the summation borders on surgical. “We started off exceeding expectations where our process in the beginning was to build a base up in points,” he says. “And so with a third at Atlanta, a top-5 in Vegas and consistent finishes all through the first half, we were rolling. We hadn’t won yet, but our average finish was [10.1] in the first half of the year. And when we won Kentucky, right after a week where we should have won Daytona in July, that was our peak. That was our high point.”
From there, Busch explains how last season took an up-and-down ride (“sawtooth” is how he describes it) that ultimately sank the No. 1 team in the first round of the playoffs. Up to and including the Kentucky win, Busch had averaged a finish of 9.6 to start last season. In the seven regular-season races that followed, Busch scored just three top-10 finishes and had an average finish of 17.7. The team then suffered a blown tire and crash in the playoff opener at Las Vegas that led nearly directly to Busch’s first-round playoff exit.
“It was tough,” Busch says. “We just didn’t perform well and had bad luck at the same time.”
But with the playoff disappointment of last season behind Busch and a new multi-year contract with Ganassi for this season and beyond, he and the team are getting to work on a checklist of improvements.
“Some of [what went wrong] was just team, some of it was me overdriving and some of it was pit crew mistakes,” Busch says. “The Camaro was a bit behind as we saw at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship and the Fords that ran strong.”
Busch hopes the significant change to the Camaro body style for Cup competition that debuts at Daytona will help this season. “From the numbers that I’ve seen and the goals that they wanted to achieve, it’s a perfect balance of what we need to help us at downforce tracks, short tracks — if [NASCAR does] change the rules — and also all of the superspeedways,” Busch says. “The Camaro should be more efficient with [lift] over [drag] and the side force that we’re looking to gain.”
He’s also looking to earn more points in each race’s second stage and to curb some serious pit road woes. Busch cites a graph showing that his team lost a total of 120 positions on pit road last season. “You can’t do that,” he says. “You gotta try to break even.”
But don’t categorize Busch’s reflections and criticisms as unhappiness. He believes they’re stepping stones to big things in 2020.
“From where the No. 1 car was last year to where it is now, mission accomplished,” Busch says. “And that’s a perfect foundation to use going into 2020, especially with a multiyear contract extension. To have [sponsor] Monster Energy, Chevrolet and everybody at Ganassi back — everybody’s gonna be in the same position. If we can improve on the little things, that’s going to help us get to that Round of 8 and have a shot at the Championship 4, have a shot at the championship in 2020.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 40/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)