KURT BUSCH, NO. 1 CHIP GANASSI RACING CAMARO ZL1 1LE, met with the media today.
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPECTATIONS FOR YOUR FORMER TEAMMATE, KYLE LARSON, COMING BACK THIS SEASON AND THE OPPORTUNITY THAT HE’S GOT WITH A SECOND CHANCE?
“I think we saw a good dose of that in 2020, with how he handled the departure from Chip Ganassi Racing and how he elevated his game to a whole new level on the dirt circuits everywhere. I was texting him after win, after win, after win and I got behind after about the 20th win. Ultimately, the way he presented himself, the way he carried himself, showed his initiative with NASCAR on rectifying the problem and going through the road to recovery. And just everything about him last year shows what he’s going to bring to the track in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021. The professionalism of Hendrick Motorsports has never been questioned. The guidance there and just everything that I’m seeing adding up is that once he gets the feel of the car, and once he’s in sync with his crew chief – they’re going to be a tough train to stop. I see that program as being one of the top contenders already.”
I’VE COVERED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR WHOLE CAREER AND I KIND OF FEEL LIKE WATCHING YOU OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, THERE’S BEEN A CERTAIN LIFT IN YOUR STEP. YOU REALLY SEEM TO ABSOLUTELY BE ON TOP OF YOUR GAME. I’M JUST WONDERING, IS THAT KIND OF HOW YOU FEEL, AS WELL?
“Yeah, I feel confident in who I am, what I’ve done in this series, what I’ve done in all of motorsports. This is the point in my career where it’s easy to give back- it’s easy to help young crew members, engineers. I’m in a perfect situation now with being a mentor to Ross Chastain, who I think is an up and comer in the NASCAR Cup Series. So, it’s just fitting into that role and being confident with all my moves and Chip Ganassi, himself, and this racing program has brought the best out in me.”
DO YOU LOOK AT THE CLASH AS A TEST SESSION, CONSIDERING THERE’S A POINTS RACE THERE TWO WEEKS LATER WITH NO PRACTICE?
“Yes, Bob (Pockrass), you’re right on it. We looked at the Clash as just a fun exhibition race. And then with the cancellation of Auto Club Speedway and a full points race the week after the Daytona 500, it took a whole new level of importance within our approach. We’ve got minimal time on track, but we’ve got to make the best of it. So, we’re approaching this as a bridge from where we were last year at that road course race, where we were at the ROVAL, and all of what we’re doing is prepping towards the February 21st race.”
WITH THE NEW CAR COMING IN 2022, HAVE YOU SET ANY SOFT DEADLINE AS FAR AS MAKING A DECISION AS FAR AS WHETHER YOU’LL RACE FULL-TIME NEXT YEAR?
“No real soft deadline. One thing I learned in 2020 is that you have to be fluid – that seemed to be the word of the year. And following that stream, I feel like with Ganassi, Monster Energy, myself, Chevrolet – all this will come together for the right reasons at the right time.”
WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE DAYTONA 500 AND YOU LOOK AT HOW IT MAKES OR BREAKS A CAREER IF YOU’RE A YOUNG DRIVER, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO A GUY LIKE YOU WHEN YOU LOOK AT THIS YEAR STARTING OFF THE SEASON WITH A RACE THAT BIG AND WHAT YOU NEED TO SHOW EVERYONE OR DON’T AT THIS AGE?
“The Daytona 500 is the most prestigious stock car race of all. To win it, it changes peoples’ lives. The title that comes along with it is important, nostalgic, historic and it’s a pride feeling when you win this race. And so, the drive and the fuel for me is to go get it again and to keep it from others. That’s the motivation, but also to bring it to Chip Ganassi Racing and all of our sponsors. The overall feel is, at the same time, you’re tied for the lead for points when you go into Daytona – that’s always a nice quality token to take with you. It’s important to get good points in the race, but ultimately, you’re there to win it.”
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE TO STRAP IN FOR THE DAYTONA 500?
“It is different than all the other races. It’s the first race of the year, it’s the most powerful race. There’s always that question of, did we get everything prepped? Did we get all of our checklist done? You have all the months of re-build and training. So, there’s just all those emotions and all those thoughts. Ultimately, when you strap the helmet on and fire up the car, that’s that big deep breath of ‘oh yeah, it’s race time’ and I know the fans feel it that are there and the millions of viewers watching on TV. And then you have to remember, it’s a 500-mile race. It’s not just a quick stage race – it’s a full 500 miles. There’s a lot of emotions to control right at the beginning of the year.”
TALK ABOUT THE TEST THAT YOU DID WITH GMS RACING TO PREPARE FOR BRISTOL. YOU WERE ONE OF THE MASTERS AT BRISTOL MOTOR SPEEDWAY AND, I’M JUST WONDERING, WHAT’S IT GOING TO TAKE?
“For me, it was fun to get back in a car and just fire up a big engine with horsepower. And then to go around the dirt track – it was Elkin, North Carolina. We went to Friendship Speedway just to, in all honestly, knock off the cobwebs and the cobwebs of my dirt racing, which go back to the mid-90s. That’s a fun thing to say as a current Cup driver. I’ve got a couple starts at the Prelude at Eldora Speedway. But, in all honestly, it was Mike Beam, who I worked with at KBM – he gave me call and said ‘hey, we’ve got some modifieds here, come on out’. And that’s the same style of modified I drove on asphalt back in the 90’s, but it blended me back in with my dwarf car roots. Dwarf cars are very similar to legend cars on the dirt.”
“But ultimately, Bristol will be a whole different track, a whole different complexion. What I’ve done there in the past is irrelevant for the spring race. It’s just the motivation to go after something new and go after something different. It’s the same motivation when Bruton Smith, Marcus Smith and everybody changed the Charlotte track to the ROVAL, and I attacked that whole sequence with practice, simulators and ultimately sat on the pole for the ROVAL and picked up a top-five finish. I’m doing all I can to prep for this dirt race at Bristol because that’s what my team wants me to do and that’s what I need from them to bring the best possible car to win this race.”
YOU WERE AT CHILI BOWL A COUPLE YEARS AGO. WE’RE SEEING CHASE ELLIOTT MAKE HIS DEBUT IN USAC MIDGITS THIS WEEKEND, HE RAN CHILI BOWL. IS THAT STILL MAYBE ON YOUR BUCKET LIST EVEN LATER IN YOUR CAREER?
“The Chili Bowl would be a fun factor, bucket list item, but it’s not relevant to prepping for the big, heavy stock cars that we’re going to have at Bristol. It’s sticking with something that’s in the space, the genre, of the Cup car – Xfinity, Truck, that modified was a good taste. The next step is researching what’s racing the week of Bristol prepping to get into possibly one of those races. But again, nothing is going to simulate a big, heavy Cup car. Our race is 250-laps at this race. The place is going to glaze over after 50 laps and there’s no dirt track anywhere where you can prep to get that type of experience. So, it’s a learn-as-you-go and it’s doing it as a team at Chip Ganassi Racing to find all the right proper sequences to prep.”
WHAT HAS ROSS CHASTAIN SHOWN YOU SINCE YOU’VE BEEN TOGETHER AT GANASSI?
“The No. 1 thing about Ross Chastain is his work ethic. That can never be questioned. His commitment to making it to this level has been second-to-none. His track experience is solid. He knows his weaknesses and has his strengths. Again, it’s the intimidation factor of a top-tier car, a full-time ride, and he’s like, ‘Man, what happens if we have a bad race at Daytona,’ or ‘What happens if I slip up at Vegas or something?’ And I’m like, ‘Hey man… just relax. Let’s get these first five races under your belt and we’ll come back circle around.’ So that is showing his eagerness, his desire to do well but also his nerves. We just have to get those calmed down by running some reps. So limited track time… he has to do a good job of understanding stages as well as the full completion of the race and then to keep expectations in reality. A top-25 finish is a great checkmark. A top-15 is a really solid day, and to come away with a top-10 early in the season is what I’d call a win for a rookie-type guy like him.”
DO YOU FIND THE DESIRE TO WIN ANOTHER DAYTONA AFTER WINNING IT THE FIRST TIME?
“Absolutely. The years before a win at Daytona, there’s the humility and the humble feeling of that this track is still in control of me. With winning it in 2017, it’s an experience beyond no other. There’s that energy in your soul when you go back to defend… and then the race doesn’t go well, there’s that humble feeling again that the track will give you. That’s the approach I have as a couple of years that have gone by. It’s to be humble, approach the track with the same style – humility, preparation and the hopeful feeling of Lady Luck being on your side to win. You can never go there to expect to win. You just go there to try to take care of all the things that are in your control to be in position to win.”
ARE THE PLAYOFFS STILL A GOOD METRIC FOR DECIDING A CHAMPION?
“I feel like NASCAR did a great job in 2004 to create a playoff atmosphere. You had the regular season and then the 10 races that separated themselves as playoff races, as Chase races, as the way and the avenue to win a championship. It’s still the same even though there are these cutoffs of three races at a time… getting from 16 down to 12 drivers and then down to eight. Those guys with bonus points usually work their way right to the final four. What we saw with Kevin Harvick not making it is very similar to football where let’s say Tom Brady had to go on the road and beat all those other teams to work his way to the Super Bowl. That’s an underdog-style team that didn’t even know who they were going to end up playing next week. You have to adapt and you have to take in what’s going to show up next week. Everybody knows that we’re going to this track for this sector, and you have to do your job to get through that round. Whether you have a points cushion or whether you don’t, ultimately there is the black-and-white task of getting this many points ahead of this other guy to advance. It’s a bona-fide championship system that is very clear to understand. You have to go out there and perform each and every week within what it takes to advance. It’s not just a given when you performed good all year.”