Kurt Busch and No. 41 team didn’t wait till Chicago to flip the switch

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — While everyone is waiting to see if Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team will turn into their usual playoff selves this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, Kurt Busch decided not to wait.

The Daytona 500 winner enters the playoffs after earning three straight top-five finishes. The stretch began last month at Bristol Motor Speedway and continued two weeks later in the Southern 500 after Busch made a request of his team.

“In all honestly, you have an off week, there’s a reset and then now there’s 12 weeks to run out the season,” Busch said Wednesday at playoff media day. “I said ‘Why are we saving anything? If we are saving anything, why are we saving it? Let’s just go now.'”

The all-out philosophy turned into a third-place finish at Darlington Raceway, his first top five at the track in seven years.

The No. 41 team answered again last weekend at Richmond, where the Stewart-Haas Racing car placed fourth. It was the first time Bush has earned three top fives in a row since 2015 when he had four through June and July.

The stretch comes after Busch only finished in the top five once in the 22 races after he won the Daytona 500.

“There wasn’t any objections and it’s been nice,” Busch said. “Everybody really jumped in to give more. All these 26 races we’re always giving it our all, but these last 10 weeks, these last 12 weeks. Let’s go after it even more. That’s the playoff intensity that I want in my guys to understand and to enjoy it as well.”

Busch hasn’t won at Chicago in 16 starts. His best result is third in 2015. With the Cup Series only visiting the 1.5-mile track once a year, Busch said he and his teams rely on research on “sister tracks” to Chicago. But for Busch, those don’t include similar looking 1.5-mile tracks.

“Chicago is a worn out mile-and-a-half track,” said Busch, who took part in a test at the track earlier this year with fellow playoff drivers Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, among others. “The test went really well for us, but you compare it to similar tracks, like Darlington. I know Darlington isn’t a mile-and-a-half, but it’s fast. It has worn out asphalt. …

“Atlanta’s a sister track and then Homestead is a sister track to Chicago. All the worn out mile-and-a-halves are the way you prepare for Chicago.”

But in going all-out at Darlington and Richmond, is Busch worried he’ll have hurt his chances in the first round?

“It could go two ways,” Busch said. “Everybody shows up in their stuff at Chicago and we’ve already brought all our stuff and now are we going to be behind? But these last couple of years we saved everything for Chicago and we run the same position. It’s as if we should have brought the stuff sooner and gathered better momentum, better finishes and had more opportunities to win races.

“Worst-case scenario, you get eliminated after this first round. So what did you do? You spent 25 races prepping for three? No way. I want to go and try to win every week and in this game it’s tough. … There’s a game within a game. I hope we made all the right moves and we can go to Chicago knowing we’ve got our stuff and it should be comparable to what everybody brings.”

If Busch’s plan works out, he could set himself up for a run at the second Cup championship of his career. He won the first title in the playoff era in 2004. He won that crown for Roush Fenway Racing in a Ford. The manufacturer hasn’t won the Cup trophy since.

Busch and his team will try to execute their plan with the knowledge that Busch’s future at Stewart-Haas Racing is cloudy. SHR announced it was not picking up its 2018 option on Busch early last month, but later added it expected him to be back in the No. 41.

Busch said “there will be” an announcement on his future as “I have more or it’s complete.”

But now Busch and his team faces the present, which includes the imminent playoffs.

“It’s my job to show them – and I’ve done that since the break – we’re going (to tracks) to win, we’re going there to execute as a team, and we’re gonna get all we can out of this playoff run knowing that there are some variables still out there as far as my contract and where the sponsorship will all line up,” Busch said. “It’s a matter of just focusing on the task at hand and that’s each practice, each qualifying session and each race.”

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones on why he doesn’t make friends with his competitors

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Back in April Erik Jones told reporters at Daytona International Speedway that when it comes to friends, he brings his to the track. He doesn’t get too close to his fellow drivers in the garage.

On NASCAR America, Jones talked with Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett about the origins of that mindset.

“My dad was always big on it, because at first when I started out my racing career in go karts I just wasn’t that aggressive,” Jones said. “He was like, ‘we bring our friends to the race track. You need to go out there and get aggressive. If you’ve to move someone out-of-the-way, do it.'”

Since then, Jones said his philosophy “never changed.”

“We show up, it’s a late-model team, it’s me a three guys so it’s like, ‘I’ve got all my buddies I need right here,'” Jones said.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones’ racing roots in Byron, Michigan

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After a feature looking at his upbringing in Byron, Michigan, Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones spoke with NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Marty Snider about the early years of his racing career.

The journey to his NASCAR career began with a yard cart that his late father, Dave Jones, brought home one day when he was 3.

“I rode that all day long around the yard,” Jones said. “Winter time would and we had like a gravel circle driveway in front of our house. When it would snow over I would get the kart out and ride it around in the snow because I could slide and I thought that was pretty cool. I would get it stuck about every five minutes out in the snow.”

Jones would then get out of the kart and find his dad in their barn to come out get him out.

Now 21, Jones also discussed how much his dad was involved in his career until his death in June 2016 after a battle with cancer.

He also explains how he’s never stayed in any series for more than one year in his career.

Watch the video above for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland

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“I sure as (expletive) hope that’s all out of our system.”

That’s what Kyle Busch had to say over his radio after he finished 15th, a lap down in the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Busch’s day went south after the first stage thanks to two pit miscues the sent him two laps down.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. dominate the field to win his fifth race of the year and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

In the latest “Scan All,” True and crew chief Cole Pearn recap their day, which saw them bounce back from their own pit road mistakes.

Here are other highlights from this week’s “Scan All.”

  • “Can’t drive in a straight line. Something’s not right with the front end.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just before he made contact with the outside wall. A commitment line violation resulted in Stenhouse finish multiple laps off the lead.
  • “Tell the 1 (Jamie McMurray) I don’t know what happened there but we both got the short end of the stick.” – Ryan Newman after contact between him and McMurray sent McMurray spinning on a restart.
  • (Expletive), that 24 (Chase Elliott) can be so much (expletive) faster than us.” – Kasey Kahne after being told he was two laps down.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones recounts rookie Cup season, being taught by Kyle Busch

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Erik Jones, the rookie driver for Furniture Row Racing in the No. 77 Toyota, joined NASCAR America Wednesday for a special show from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The 21-year-old driver won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title and is teammates with Martin Truex Jr.

With Marty Snider, Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte, Jones discussed the challenges and lessons he’s faced in his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

“The biggest (milestones) for me were trying to win a race and making the playoffs,” Jones said. “Obviously, making the playoffs didn’t happen. … I look back at the last few seasons and rookies that have been in the sport and it’s so hard to win races now. You just don’t see rookies do it a lot.”

Jones also discussed finishing second to Kyle Busch in the Bristol night race and his relationship with the driver who brought him into NASCAR beginning with the Truck Series.

“A lot of times when I was racing in Trucks and Xfinity and Kyle would come to race I’d always run second to him,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘you know what the problem is? This is the guy who taught me how to race these cars. So I’m good at all the same tracks he’s good at. Except he’s been doing about 10 more years than I have.”

Watch the video for more.