For one of the most versatile racers in motorsports, Kurt Busch’s 700th career NASCAR Cup start could not have come at a more appropriate venue than Indianapolis Motor Speedway in this Sunday’s Big Machine 400.
In addition to 31 wins and 28 poles in stock car’s premiere series, Busch’s resume boasts victories in NASCAR’s Xfinity, truck and Southwest tours, an IROC win and starts in the Rolex 24 Hours, NHRA, Rally cars, Race of Champions and the Greatest Spectacle in Racing—the Indianapolis 500—where he finished sixth in his debut and won rookie honors.
Over the course of his two decades in Cup, Busch has won in 16 seasons. He won the championship when NASCAR first introduced the playoff system in 2004 and has qualified for the post-season 14 times since.
“To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer,” Busch said. “He won a lot. But it was the money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.
“It’s amazing—twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”
Certainly, there were times in Busch’s career when drama off the track jeopardized his ability to race. But after each trial he faced, the Las Vegas native fought through the adversity and came back stronger from the experience.
Unlike today’s drivers, Busch has an acute understanding of the race car and uses that as an advantage on the race track. His father Tom, also a racer, expected both Kurt and Kyle to work on the cars they drove. Throughout the course of his career, Busch has elevated the level of competition at each of the teams he's raced for from Team Penske to Furniture Row Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and now Ganassi Racing.
“It takes a good team to have a driver’s ability to find the success,” Busch said. “A team is the foundation. But the way I’ve looked at things over the years is it seemed like drivers in the generation before me got in when they were in their young thirties and would go to their late forties. And then there was this guy named Jeff Gordon, who came into the sport and broke down a ton of barriers as far as age, and it opened up the flood gates for owners to look at all different areas of the country to find talent and to find racers.
“It’s been an amazing ride for me. I got in in my young twenties. And then a guy like Joey Logano got in in his teens. My little brother (Kyle) got in in his teens. The change, the shift, has happened for younger drivers to get in and yet it’s still tough to go past 25 years is extreme. I don’t think we’ll ever see that anymore. And so that’s that window that we’ve all had this opportunity to race in, and I think it’s just a matter of age blended with the experience level and with a top-tier team. And when you see that, it’s usually in that 32 to 38 range that I would say could be the peak.”
But maturity—and patience—has been a game changer for Busch. No matter what changes NASCAR makes to the cars or the format, the 41-year-old driver has been able to adapt and contend in the post-season.
“I’m having some of the best years of my career as far as consistency because I’m using that experience level,” Busch said. “I’m using that calmness and that ability to project the future in the car, and that’s leading to good, consistent, and quality finishes. It’s just that we’ve got to cross over another barrier of sometimes you just throw caution to the wind and let it rip.”
Had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, Busch would have crossed the paddock to drive for his team owner Chip Ganassi in the NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheader this weekend at the Brickyard. He’s not ruling out a second opportunity in open wheel—especially since Jimmie Johnson was offered an IndyCar test with Ganassi prior to contracting coronavirus.
“I looked at it and just with everything going on with COVID and the pandemic and lack of preparation, it just kind of shut everything down as far as the progress and the approach because it takes a full effort of being tested and track time and being ready,” Busch said. “And that’s something that I really put in when I ran the Indy 500 six years ago now. And so, everything just got shut down.
“But, it would have been fun to be with Chip Ganassi Racing and then with Jimmie Johnson now doing a test with Scott Dixon’s car, it’s all right there in front of us. It’s just the timing wasn’t right.”
While Busch hasn’t found tremendous success in a stock car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his best result of fifth came in his 2001 Brickyard debut, the driver of the No. 1 Chevy hopes to turn his luck around this weekend.
“It’s a big marquee race—it’s our Brickyard 400,” Busch said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have our race fans. That’s what I still think about first, each time we’re heading to the race track. With a special weekend like this with INDYCAR and Xfinity on the road course on Saturday, and then the Cup race on Sunday on the oval, Roger Penske (IMS/IndyCar owner) is the only one that could have made INDYCAR and NASCAR happen on the same weekend.
“Big Machine is there with their sponsorship and I know they would put on a great concert and the whole atmosphere around Indy. It was set-up to be fan-based and to have that extra entertainment value, so it’s something we’ll miss. But I’m focused-in on Sunday’s race.”