As early as the late September race weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, the two drivers were trying to one-up each other.
“We were trash talking each other on the phone through practice sessions,” Busch recalled. “I thought that was fun. We didn’t even race with each other yet, but I think we knew what the future was and that’s something that was special.”
Larson did know then that the 2004 Cup champion would take the place of Jamie McMurray, his teammate through his first five full-time years in Cup. That knowledge played a part in how he raced Busch in the opening laps of the race itself.
“I had a lot of fun pressuring him early in the race there to get the lead and kind of making an aggressive pass on him,” Larson said. “That was fun, but at the same time you’re also not wanting to get into him to like start the relationship off bad.”
While Busch was announced as moving from Stewart-Haas Racing to Ganassi in early December, a media event Tuesday at the team’s shop was the first time they’d seen each other this offseason. It was hard given Larson jetting around the world to race in New Zealand and then spending a week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the Chili Bowl.
Even then, Busch and Larson kept in touch via phone. The communication from opposite sides of the world left an impression on Busch.
“There’s this aura about him,” Busch said. “It’s 24/7 race cars. It’s having fun while doing it, but then when he switches on the last little bit he’s full on serious about everything when it comes to the car. He’s surprised me in so many different ways already. There’s still that natural talent. That’s something that can’t come from anywhere. He’s got to apply it. I guess the thing I’ve learned from him is his will to continue to push as hard as he’s pushing. If we get that on the Cup side of it, then the sky’s the limit.”
Busch, 40, is well aware of the stark differences between him and his 26-year-old teammate.
“I think there’s the old school and the new school, I think there’s the late-model guy vs. the dirt guy,” Busch said.
One person at CGR qualified to observe the “black and white” differences in the drivers and help integrate Busch is Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston. Johnston was Tony Stewart’s crew chief at SHR from 2014-15, overlapping with Busch’s time driving the No. 41.
“Kyle’s more laid back and easy-going and Kurt’s more of a he’s going to tell you what he thinks no matter if you want to hear it or not,” Johnston said. “(Busch) came into the sport as a pretty young man himself and was able to be successful. So I think there’s a lot things he’s encountered along the way that he maybe can help Kyle with or guide him through or give him a heads up, like ‘Hey, this is what happened to me.’
“More like fatherly advice I guess you could say.”
So where does Larson think the 30-time Cup winner will benefit him this season?
“I think he’ll be able to help me a lot on the short track stuff,” Larson said. “I think he’ll be able to help our cars a lot, too, on the short track stuff. That’s an area where I struggle really, really bad. … I know I’ve ran well at Richmond here lately and all that but it’s still a track that I struggle at. But then I think the tracks I run well at, your mile-and-a-halves, Chicago, Homestead, places like that where you have to move around and find grip, I think that’s where I can maybe help him.”
Busch said he is “eager” to quiz Larson on what “he does up in the high lane” to keep his momentum going.
“Right now my gut instinct is I’m a guy that drives off the right front tire from all the late-model experience I have,” Busch said. “He’s a guy that drives off the right rear tire with all the dirt track experience he has. It shows that there’s two ways to skin the same cat. But that gets me excited to learn things and I think he’s feeling that same thing as far as having my experience come to him.”
Larson and Busch will be aiming to give Ganassi a much-needed boost after the team went winless in 2018.
Busch is the first Cup champion to compete for Chip Ganassi Racing since it entered NASCAR in 2001. And unlike Larson, he’s won at least one Cup race in each of the last five seasons.
Busch said he feels a “small responsibility” to help Larson develop into championship caliber driver.
“Just due to my age and where I sit personally,” Busch said. “He’s at the top of his game here in the top sport of racing here in the U.S. Larson can be bigger. He can be better. And I see something in him and that’s part of the draw of why I came here. There’s plenty of reasons, but that’s one of those things on the side. It’s not a trophy, it’s not a win. But I would feel a sense of accomplishment by helping him out.”