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Kurt Busch ready to reclaim NASCAR Cup championship for himself, Ford

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Just barely falling short of winning the Race Of Champions competition this past weekend in Miami has Kurt Busch pumped up to win another kind of championship.

And it’s a Monster, indeed.

Busch, who was the first driver to win the then-new Chase for the Nextel Cup format in 2004, would like nothing more than to become the first driver to win the rebranded Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

What’s more, if Busch and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion – which will also continue to be sponsored by Monster Energy as well – has an added bit of incentive tacked on from his championship run 12 years ago.

Busch is the last Ford-powered driver to bring a NASCAR Cup championship to the blue oval company. Since Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004, there have been 12 Chevrolets, one Dodge and one Toyota that have won NASCAR’s most coveted crown.

But not Ford. Busch has high hopes of changing that 0-for-14 streak.

“It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing,” Busch said Tuesday at the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte. “It really feels neat to come back to a place where I’ve seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there’s more depth with Ford Performance.

“The best thing that I’ve seen already come out of things is that the engineering staff at Stewart-Haas.  It’s like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further from where we were with GM.”

Admittedly, while the entire Stewart-Haas organization is excited about its first season with all-new Ford power and bodies, there could still be a learning curve of getting used to a different manufacturer after SHR’s previous long tenure with Chevrolet.

But even without any preseason testing, Busch remains optimistic that he and his teammates can come out strong right from the start of the season.

“The teams have more depth,” he said. “There’s more simulations. It used to be the driver and the crew chief came back with a notebook. Now the notebook has been used by the lead engineers.

“Limited track time saves money, but you spend more on personnel to make the cars faster, safer, stronger. I’ve seen some of the drawings. We had to change a few of our suspension settings. There might be a few bugs here or there, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Competing in this past weekend’s Race Of Champions in Miami added yet another excerpt to Busch’s vast racing resume, including NASCAR to drag racing, midget cars to Legends cars and bandolero’s, and even drove in the Indianapolis 500.

But the ROC was definitely an adventure.

“The Race of Champions is very unique and it’s a lot of fun,” Busch said. “It’s a chaotic, frat house feel and to race against the Europeans, the South Americans, it truly was a unique challenge and all the different vehicles that the Race of Champions puts you in and how it’s structured and how it all works, but it’s the fun, it’s the other side of it too.

“After my first race Sunday, I got beat by Hinchcliffe (IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe) by only a fraction of a second and I was feeling a little down.

“And I said, ‘I think I’ve got the wrong mentality. I just need to go like this is a green-white-checker every time I go out there. Just grab gears, hard on the brake, hard on the gas, just attack the track and go for it.’

“And then I started winning. I was able to get on the other side of the second bracket that I needed to get in and then Kyle was winning as well.  He was beating guys like Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, and the next thing you know we advanced as the NASCAR group as brothers and represented the USA in the finals against (Sebastian) Vettel. That was an incredible feeling. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

Busch also regaled the media with the funniest part of this past weekend’s ROC.

“For some reason everybody was forgetting what gear to put their car in when they were leaving the staging area on Sunday,” he said. “Scott Speed literally drove through (Helio) Castroneves in the staging area and wrecked two cars.

“My little brother (Kyle Busch) thought he was in first gear, but he was in fast reverse and he backed into another car. I was like, ‘Guys, why are we all so nervous as the American team?’”

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Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson are members of each other’s fan club

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Following Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Bristol Night Race, Kyle Busch stopped by the NASCAR on NBCSN victory lane stage to give an expanded explanation of how he wound up not only winning the race, but also sweeping all three races of the weekend.

During the interview, Busch discussed numerous things about the race, but one part stood out: his complimentary explanation of racing with his namesake, Kyle Larson.

“I tell you what, I like Larson a lot, but he is an animal,” Busch said with a smile. “He just drives the heck out of a race car.

“He don’t care if you’re there. He’ll pull down in front of you and take that chance that you’ll cut him a break. And sometimes you can’t, sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s just sprint car mentality.

“Like when you’re going down a straightaway side-by-side with a guy in a sprint car and you just turn it off to the bottom and try to pull a slide job on another guy, you just don’t care. He better check up, or you’re both going to be up on your wing, you know what I mean?”

While Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett spoke to Busch, Larson put out a post-race tweet explaining his awe and appreciation of Busch and his talents.

Busch responded in kind.

“I appreciate that,” Busch said. “A lot of people would say those exact same words about Kyle Larson himself. And I do as well. I’ve raced against him in Trucks and Xfinity and watched him work his way up through the ranks. It’s fun to race guys like that.”

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No race today, but you can still check out Episode 2 of “The Pits”

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Don’t miss Episode 2 of “The Pits” and be on the lookout for the next episodes only on NBCSports.com/The-Pits.

Episode 2, sponsored by Sonic and brought to you by NBC Sports, features the pit crew and what comical adventures they get into after stepping off pit road.

Check out the video above.

 

 

Matt Kenseth had motivation chasing Erik Jones: ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – There were two delicious subplots crystallizing with 100 laps to go Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Matt Kenseth was focused on only one.

Yes, a win by Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones would have locked up another playoff berth and tightened the screws on winless drivers on the points bubble such as Kenseth

But as he chased after Jones, who will take over Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the championship wasn’t on his mind.

“I didn’t really think about that,” Kenseth said after finishing fourth, adding with a laugh. “I was really more thinking about, ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down and pass him to show him I can still do it better than he can.’ I had those thoughts. But I wasn’t thinking anything about the playoffs, I was thinking about trying to win the race.

“It’s human nature. Whoever you’re catching for the lead, you’re always thinking something about them, right? Where you can sniff the victory, your mindset changes a little bit. It’s not just another car, it’s the leader, so you think things like that every once in a while. My brain’s a scary place.”

The motivational tactics didn’t quite work as Kenseth came up short. But so did Jones, who led a race-high 260 of 500 laps but was runner-up to Kyle Busch (who swept the week of NASCAR races at the 0.533-mile oval for the second time in his career).

Afterward, Jones and Kenseth (who doesn’t have a confirmed ride for 2018) sat side by side in the media center for a postrace interview session that could have been awkward but was surprisingly jovial.

Asked how he was able to use the bumper of his No. 77 Toyota respectfully in traffic, Jones received a playful nudge and whisper from a smiling Kenseth.

“I was asking Erik how you run into somebody respectfully,” he joked.

“I didn’t mean to hit Matt,” Jones replied.

“Did you hit me?”

“Just barely.”

“Didn’t remember,” Kenseth said with his typically Cheshire cat grin. “Shouldn’t have brought it up.  Now I’m mad. You guys laugh, wait till we leave here. Takes my ride and runs into me!”

After the laughter subsided, Jones said the subplots weren’t on his mind, either, as he fended off Kenseth.

“When you’re out there, it’s just another car to pass,” Jones said. “At least I’d assume that’s how most people look at it. That’s how I look at it.

“Yeah, sure you get to some guy, you’re like, ‘That guy wrecked me last week,’ something like that.  For the most part, as long as you don’t have a grudge with the guy, it’s just another competitor.”

Said Kenseth: “Honestly I would have liked to see Erik get the win. It would have been fine with me. I wasn’t really thinking about the playoffs. It would just have been another one of our cars with a win, put another JGR Furniture Row Toyota in the playoff grid.”

With two races remaining in the regular season, Kenseth’s chances still seem decent without a victory. Along with Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, Kenseth is among the three winless drivers who have a provisional playoff berth.

The trio is well ahead of the cutoff (Clint Bowyer is 58 points behind McMurray, who is three behind Kenseth and 11 behind Elliott), so provided there isn’t another first-time winner, it would take a collapse for them to be eliminated.

After what Kenseth called “the best day we’ve ever had” by the No. 20 pit crew, there is playoff optimism despite a winless streak that is at 13 months. Saturday marked his fourth top five in six races.

“I feel good about the next 12 (races),” Kenseth said. “When we’re at our best, we can run good at all those places.”

Erik Jones fails to live up to Bristol intro song, but earns best finish of Cup career

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones made a pivotal mistake leading up to Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He was one of six who forgot to choose their intro song prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

“I don’t even know who picked my song,” Jones said.

The Furniture Row Racing driver can thank someone named “DJ Du” for stepping up.

As a result, Jones was “a little surprised” when he appeared at the top of a ramp in Turn 3 to be introduced as the pole-sitter for the night’s race. The sounds of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” echoed throughout “Thunder Valley.”

“DJ Du” turned out not to be a prophet. But Jones did everything he could during the ensuing 500 laps to back up the song selection.

Making his 27th Cup start and his second at the .533-mile track, Jones led a career-high 260 laps. He matched wits with Kyle Busch, now a six-time Bristol winner, and Matt Kenseth, a four-time Bristol winner and the driver he’ll succeed in the No. 20.

The battle resulted in Jones finishing second, the best result of his Cup career.

Jones led nine times, swapping the lead with Busch, his former Camping World Truck Series owner, 10 times – three times in the last 139 laps.

Despite the lack of his first Cup trophy, Jones is confident it was the most fun he’s had to date in the Cup Series.

Though he’s only 21, the race reminded him of his good ol’ days driving modifieds.

“It takes you back to, you know, late model racing really more than anything,” Jones said. “You’re just on the gas. You’re not saving tires. You’re just hammer down and getting everything you can, which is a lot of fun. It’s hard on you as a driver, it wears you out, but you definitely have a lot of fun.”

Bristol, a track he’s won at twice in the Xfinity Series, reminds him of Winchester Speedway in Indiana, a .5-mile oval where he’s won three Winchester 400.

And he almost won like at Winchester.

Even Busch, who won all three Bristol races this week, thought it was Jones’ race to lose before he took the lead for good with 56 laps to go.

“He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver,” said Busch, who first discovered Jones when he finished third to Jones in the 2012 Snowball Derby. “We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him.

“I thought today was actually going to be that day.”

Jones, who first experienced Cup action in 2015 when he relieved Denny Hamlin mid-race at Bristol, said leading a race for so long is a “burden,” especially for someone still figuring out how things work in the Cup Series.

“You’re letting all those guys be behind you get better and better and improve on their cars to gain up on you,” Jones said. “It’s hard to get your car better when you’re out front. You don’t really know what you need.”

If there was a burden, Jones said there was no pressure to win, even with a potential playoff spot waiting for him if he did visit victory lane.

With two races left in the regular season, he is 16th in the points standings but outside the 16-driver playoff grid.

“This was our best shot to win,” Jones said. “I was just actually really calm this week. I really had a sense we were going to run really well. … I feel really confident every time I come to Bristol. And, you know, kind of felt like we were going to be running up front, but just didn’t have enough.”

Saturday’s 500 laps left Jones the “most wore out” he’s been this season following a race, but he knows they’ll be instrumental when he finally gets to celebrate as Busch did Saturday night.

Said Jones: “You got to lose one to win one, right?”

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