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Review / Preview: Kurt Busch

By Toby Christie         

It was an emotional season for Kurt Busch, the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. Busch reached victory lane for the fifth-consecutive season, but talks of his contract status dominated the headlines in 2018 for the driver.

Busch’s season didn’t get off to the best start. Through the first three races, Busch had already racked up two DNFs (Daytona and Las Vegas). However, the ominous start was not indicative of how Busch’s campaign would go.

Busch would finish 10th at Phoenix, followed by finishes of 14th and 11th at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville.

As Busch rolled into Texas, his Stewart-Haas Racing team was looking quite stout. In qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, Busch proved it by nabbing the pole.

Busch would lead the race three times for a total of 40 laps before ultimately settling for a seventh-place finish.

A couple of races later at Richmond, Busch was again very strong. Through the first 251 laps of the 402 lap race, Busch led an impressive 98 laps. However as the final Stage drew to a close, the No. 41 faded to an 11th-place finish.

After the disappointing finish in Richmond, Busch bounced back to post six top-10 finishes over his next seven starts. That stretch also included a runner-up finish at Talladega and a third-place effort after starting from the pole in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan.

As the summer stretch got under way, Busch had a couple of disappointing finishes at Chicago (17th) and Daytona (37th after a crash). Busch had officially hit the mid-way point of the 2018 season, and he was still win-less. While two of his three teammates (Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer) had already visited victory lane multiple times.

Despite the frustration and being paired with a young crew chief with zero career wins (Billy Scott) Busch, who has known to wear his heart on his sleeve when things aren’t exactly going his way, was able to keep his composure, and it paid off.

After the Daytona DNF, Busch was arguably the most consistent driver over the final eight races before the Playoffs. During that eight-race stretch, Busch knocked out eight-consecutive top-10 finishes.

However, none of them were more important than the night race at Bristol.

Busch started the race from the ninth position, and he showed to have a car capable of a top-10 (back half of the top-10) all race long. After finishing seventh in Stage 1 and ninth in Stage 2, Busch got up on the wheel to chase his sixth victory at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile.

After three cautions in the final 100 laps, Busch found himself in second-place. This set up a winner-take-all restart with 24 laps remaining against his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer.

Bowyer, leader at the time, chose the outside line for the restart. He chose wrong. Busch was able to get his car to track forward, and he pulled past Bowyer. Busch would lead the final 24 laps on his way to his sixth Bristol win.

“You just have to go into the tool chest of restart stuff,” Busch stated. “You go back to memories on what it takes with the tires, which lane, the way the inside had been wearing out, but yet the high groove was there and plus we were on older tires.  We didn’t have the new tires to stick it good on the bottom, so I just went to the old tool box and had a few left.”

Once the Playoffs began, it was all about survival for Busch. The Las Vegas-native breezed through the Round of 16 and the Round of 12. In the Round of 8, Busch started things off in stellar fashion.

The driver started sixth and finished sixth at Martinsville, but more importantly, he left the half-mile paper clip without any enemies.

A race later, in Texas Busch was back inside the top-10 again. After starting seventh, he would finish seventh.

Going into the final race of the round, Busch was one point position behind the transfer spot.

Busch came into ISM Raceway in Phoenix knowing that if he won the race he wouldn’t have to worry about points as far as the championship was concerned. Busch started 14th, but he wouldn’t stay there long.

By lap 84, Busch was in the lead of the race. The No. 41 Ford Fusion would pace the field for 52 laps. When the caution came out on lap 134, the field came to pit road. Busch, trying to get as much of an advantage as he could coming to the pit lane actually passed the pace car for a brief moment. This led to a one-lap penalty from NASCAR.

It would take Busch nearly 100 laps to gain his lap back by way of the free pass when the caution came out again on lap 229.

40 laps later, Busch was in contention to grab a top finish — possibly even a win. When all of a sudden a four-car crash was triggered by Denny Hamlin. Busch was swept up and his championship hopes were dashed.

The fact that Busch hadn’t announced a sponsorship extension yet already stoked the rumor that Busch would not return to SHR in 2019, but after climbing from his crashed car in Phoenix, Busch shared an embrace with Tony Stewart. This basically reaffirmed to everyone that Busch would be on the move for ’19.

“He was just helping me out as a driver, owner,” Busch said. “That’s what Tony Stewart does. He’s a good individual that knows how to pat somebody on the back and create clarity from the outside on what went on because I only see what happens from the inside of the car.”

Busch would close out the season as the seventh-place driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series point standings. In addition to his Bristol win, Busch racked up six top-five finishes, 22 top-10s and five poles.

For 2019, the rumors turned out to be true. Busch, 40, will move from Stewart-Haas Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 car. Busch will be teammates with Kyle Larson and there is speculation that this could be Busch’s final season on the circuit.

Will that ultimately prove to be true? Only time will tell. But unfortunately for Busch fans, the driver should see a decrease in performance in 2019.

CGR’s current program is nowhere near as potent as the SHR organization. Also, Busch will have to adjust to a new crew chief in Matt McCall.

I expect Busch to make the Playoffs in 2019, but he should not be nearly the contender he was in 2018. He may sneak in a win, but I certainly wouldn’t throw big money down on a victory happening this year.

That being said, if any driver could elevate an organization that is decent but not quite elite, it would be Busch. So there is always a realistic shot for Busch to find will his team into a great year.

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