With a win in the Daytona 500, the 2017 Cup season couldn’t have started out better for Kurt Busch.
But since, it’s been a struggle much of the time for the 2004 Cup champion.
The Daytona win qualified him for the playoffs, but he exited after the first round.
Along the way, he managed just four other top-five finishes, had seven DNFs (six crashes, one engine issue) and has endured a mediocre 16.2 average finish per race.
But much of that was forgotten – at least for a little while – after Busch’s runner-up finish in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, his best showing since his Daytona 500 win.
“I really wanted that one bad,” Busch told NBCSN. “I don’t know what it is about this place. I feel like I’m on pins and needles most of the day. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson always throws nice adjustments at it and the race comes to us and we’re right there. We had a shot at winning. When we get it right, we’re right there.”
Later, the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion praised Gibson further, although he didn’t exactly feel that way after Saturday’s qualifying.
“All in all, Tony Gibson deserves this second‑place finish,” Busch said. “He got on me pretty hard on Saturday morning after qualifying (15th). He said, You know, we got a brake problem. I said, ‘What do you mean?’
“He goes, ‘You didn’t use brake, that’s why we didn’t run good in run two and run three.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I never use brake in qualifying.’ So he actually really pissed me off. I spent the whole race pretty agitated. At the end, I made sure I used brake and brought it home in second.”
While his championship hopes were dashed at the end of the Round of 16, Busch hopes to build momentum for the remaining four races.
“Yeah, it was nice to have things unfold in our favor today, even though I brushed the wall and got us a lap down early,” Busch said. “The mentality that I’ve been trying to accept right now is run for 10th, try not to push the car too hard. Anything above 10th is icing on the cake.”
One thing that helped Busch’s finish was using sticker tires instead of scuffs late in the race. That allowed him to close on race winner Martin Truex Jr., even though Busch still came up over two seconds short at the start-finish line.
“It’s a matter of just keeping track of the adjustments throughout the race, making sure that we use every set of sticker tires that we possibly can and get the most out of sticker tires,” he said. “When we have scuffs, we struggle. We’re a 15th place car on scuffs.”
Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.
Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.
Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.
Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.
Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?
Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round.As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.
Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.
Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.
Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.
NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?
Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.
Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.
Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly.
Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs.
Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.
Guide to NASCAR’s hurricane relief efforts (video)
The city of Houston and its surrounding areas are still in the early stages of the recovery process from Hurricane Harvey, the Category 4 hurricane that impacted the Texas coast last week.
At the same time, the state of Florida is bracing for the impact of Hurricane Irma this weekend.
Multiple drivers and teams in NASCAR are doing their part to help those in need by establishing relief funds, food drives and other means for helping victims of the hurricane.
Here’s a look at different ways NASCAR is helping.
The track and Team Penske’s Joey Logano have partnered to host a silent auction to support hurricane relief efforts prior to Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 . The silent auction will include original pieces of race memorabilia from Team Penske, Richmond Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Furniture Row Racing and other NASCAR teams with proceeds donated to the American Red Cross. The silent auction will be held from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Commonwealth Mall outside The Classic Amphitheater.
Talladega Superspeedway/Atlanta Motor Speedway/Charlotte Motor Speedway/Bristol Motor Speedway
Charlotte Motor Speedway will open its Rock City Campground beginning at 7 a.m. Friday morning for evacuees heading north or inland from Hurricane Irma.
Accommodations will be available as long as possible prior to potential landfall. Evacuees should access Rock City Campground off Bruton Smith Boulevard through Entrance Z and will have access to bathhouse facilities on speedway property.
Evacuees are asked to check in at the ticket office on the second floor of Smith Tower at the speedway’s main entrance, starting as early as Friday morning. After-hour arrivals will be handled by Charlotte Motor Speedway security.
Bristol Motor Speedway’s campgrounds also opened Friday.
All four of Hendrick’s driver have established a relief fund with a goal of raising $500,00o in the next two weeks.
Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott have contributed a combined $200,000 to establish the fund and are now encouraging the public to join the effort by making a donation before midnight ET on Wednesday, Sept. 20. Tax-deductible contributions can be made by visiting HendrickRelief.org.
All donations to the campaign will benefit qualified charitable organizations supporting disaster relief efforts, including the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, which is housed at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity.
On Thursday, members of Johnson’s pit crew volunteered at a Lowe’s to help prepare supplies for hurricane victims.
Shell, Logano’s primary sponsor, has donated $1 million to the America Red Cross’ Hurricane Harvey disaster relief fund. Logano has donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross and opened a donation portal through the Joey Logano Foundation to collect funds on behalf of the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey disaster relief.
All proceeds donated through JLF this month will go to the American Red Cross Hurricane Harvey disaster relief fund.
Logano will have a Red Cross-inspired red-and-white paint scheme Saturday at Richmond Raceway that will raise awareness for those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Two sponsors for SHR are involved in relief efforts.
Code 3 Associates, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization specializing in animal rescue and recovery in disaster areas, is deployed in Southeast Texas and is also preparing to respond to Hurricane Irma.
Anheuser-Busch will deliver five extra truckloads – over 255,000 cans – of emergency drinking water to Houston, Corpus Christi and Austin.
Due to very high levels of demand for emergency drinking water supplies, the Cartersville, Georgia, brewery will pause beer production on Monday to produce more clean, safe emergency drinking water.
Tony Gibson, crew chief for Kurt Busch, and his wife Beth Gibson, donated a pallet of water, diapers and wipes to be delivered to Texas last weekend.
Leavine Family Racing
LFR and driver Michael McDowell have teamed up with Convoy of Hope and donated to Hurricane Harvey relief. Texas is home to the Leavines.
Convoy of Hope will be included on McDowell’s No. 95 Chevrolet this weekend at Richmond.
The parent company of Furniture Row Racing is donating $1 million in bedding to hurricane victims in Texas and Louisiana to be distributed through their partner World Vision, and in turn their community partners.
Kenseth will drive the Hurricane Harvey Relief Toyota this weekend at Richmond.
The Toyota Mothers of Invention (MOI) program recognizes women who actively contribute through innovation, entrepreneurship and invention. Select MOIs with ties to disaster response and relief have sprung into action, finding ways to solve steep challenges resulting from the disaster situation in south Texas and Louisiana.
Toyota is partnering with DayOne Response and Well Aware, an Austin-based MOI organization that will assist with training and water distribution, along with LuminAID to bring water purification bags, portable phone chargers and lanterns to those affected by Harvey:
DayOne Response: Invented a water filtration bag that takes 30 minutes to purify water. One bag will provide clean drinking water for a family of four for two months. There are approximately 10,000 people in Houston in need of access to clean water while infrastructure is restored. LuminAID: Invented lightweight, long-lasting, solar-charged lanterns and portable phone chargers to aid those without electricity during disaster situations.
Richard Childress Racing
The team began collecting bottled water and individual snack packages for Harvey relief on Wednesday. People can bring their donations to the RCR Museum and put them in a tractor-trailer the team has commissioned. RCR is not asking for clothes or non-perishable food – it will not make it to Texas.
Kurt Busch to be without crew chief Tony Gibson today
Crew chief Tony Gibson returned home Saturday night to be with his wife and will not be at today’s race for Kurt Busch.
Engineer Johnny Klausmeier will be Busch’s crew chief at Watkins Glen International. Klausmeier filled in for Gibson at Pocono in June 2016 and helped guide Busch to the win that day.
“(Gibson) texted me late last night that he had flown home, and I didn’t know that he flew back to be with (wife) Beth, so all our best and love to Beth Gibson, everything should turn out OK,” Busch told NBCSN’s Dave Burns. “For Gibson, he left this team in a good spot. Johnny Klausmeier has done this before. He’s our go-to guy when we need somebody to lead the team when Gibson is gone.”