The following story is abridged from an article originally appearing in the August issue of
RACER magazine. To buy a back issue, click here.
One of the main reasons Kurt Busch is such a good racer is that he’s such a poor loser. By his own admission, Busch is one of the most intense personalities in NASCAR and someone never far from controversy. In a NASCAR Sprint Cup career that began in 2000, Busch has had his nose broken by Jimmy Spencer in Michigan and been slapped by Tony Stewart in the NASCAR hauler after on-track contact in Daytona.
He was dropped by Roush Racing with two races left in the 2005 season after a traffic stop in Phoenix, prompting team President Geoff Smith to utter one of the most oft-quoted lines in NASCAR history: “We’re officially retiring as Kurt Busch’s apologists, effective today.”
Kurt and little brother Kyle wrecked each other with $1 million on the line in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star race in 2007, causing a serious family feud that took months to fully set aside. And, on his radio during a race, the elder Busch is bluer than the Miller Lite paint scheme that adorns his Penske Championship Racing Dodge Charger, delivering strings of profanities to team owner Roger Penske, long-suffering crew chief Pat Tryson and anyone else within earshot – even NASCAR officials who monitor his radio.
Last October at Martinsville, Busch’s car was so bad that he asked Penske if he could park it. Told that he couldn’t, Busch fired back. “If I get hurt, thanks. Appreciate it.”
The two had a similar radio exchange at this spring’s Martinsville race, where Busch qualified second and finished 18th:
Penske: “Just tell me right now if you don’t want to drive it.”
Busch: “Roger, we don’t make any good adjustments during the race. If we started 39th, we’d be three laps down, running about 35th. You understand that?”
Penske: “I don’t understand your thinking, if you want to know the truth. Let’s just drive this thing, do the best you can. Everyone is trying, OK? We don’t need a lot of rhetoric that’s always negative, OK? I know it’s not perfect.”
Busch: “If you think that I give up behind the wheel, then you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Penske: “I don’t think you give up behind the wheel, but I don’t need all the rhetoric, OK? It doesn’t help any of us. I’d appreciate that. If you have a problem, you call me and let me know. But I don’t need all the crap on the radio. That’s enough of it. Let’s see how you can drive it now, OK, if you’re so good.”
Even more critical was the adoption of the new Dodge engine, the R6P8. Penske started using the engine last September and it proved to be a wise decision. “It seems to be an improvement and we expect it to be a good thing for us in the long run,” said Tryson after the engine’s debut. “It’s not earth shattering by any means, but we didn’t expect it to be.”
The key, though, is that the R6P8 and the old R5 cannot be interchanged between cars. That means Penske had to ready an entirely new fleet of Chargers for Busch this season. It was a lot of work, to be sure, but it meant that Busch could come out of the gate strong in 2009. And it meant his fleet of cars was as state-of-the-art as the current rules allow, meaning the team had figured out how to improve the suspension geometry, lower the center of gravity and make other subtle tweaks.
“Last year at this time our biggest concern was making sure we had enough cars and that we understood where that fleet of cars was going to come from,” team president Tim Cindric said prior to the start of the season. “Now we’re at a point where we have that fleet and we’ve established ourselves on those fronts relative to the rules. Now we’re looking at how to get better relative to the others.”
And get better they did. From the start of the 2009 season, it was clear that the No. 2 Penske team was much-improved from its sad-sack ’08 season. Busch opened with a top-10 finish at Daytona and a top-five a week later in Southern California. Following a disappointing 23rd in his native Las Vegas, Busch blew the field away in Atlanta, where he led 234 laps and earned his first victory of the season.
A string of consistent finishes following allowed Busch to move up to third in points, with one-third of the 2009 season complete. That put him on track for his best season since winning the championship while driving for Jack Roush in 2004. As of Chicagoland this past weekend, he's still fourth in points.
Penske said Busch’s team has been helped by Cindric’s touch and the influence of the IndyCar side of the business. “One of the benefits Tim brought to the operation was to get people together and use the skills,” said Penske. “Just because you were an Indy guy, that didn’t mean you couldn’t work on NASCAR. And we’ve moved people around, and I think you’ve seen the change even on the Cup side.”
As for Busch, he said he sees small improvements across the board as being the reason the team is so much better this year. “We felt like we had to improve in all areas of the program, whether it’s downforce or better power from the new engine. The setups that we’re running seem to be quite a bit different than last year. Going through a year of hardship and struggle last year helped us focus this off-season to develop new ideas, and we can’t really point at one thing that’s helped us. It’s been all around.”
But is it enough to make Busch a true championship contender again? That’s the real test. Busch thinks the team’s close.
“There’s just a small thing here and small thing there I’m seeing that if we can get that conquered by the Richmond race in September, will make us as strong as we can be,” he said.
He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s up for the task.
“You have to have your best stuff every week,” Busch observes.
And so far, in 2009, he and his No. 2 Penske Racing crew have.