(WORM file photo)
When the checkered flag waved Sunday on Martinsville Speedway’s STP 500, Kurt Busch felt a sharp chill go through his body that he had done it, he was back, and he was a winner for the first time in two years.
The self-proclaimed “Outlaw” had snapped an 83-race winless streak, but more importantly, he had cemented the final brick in a career he had been rebuilding since the end of 2011.
“You’ve got to put life in perspective and you have to learn from your mistakes,” the 35-year-old Busch said. “You can’t just sit there and try to muscle your way individually through certain situations. So you rely on your experience level, you rely on your team, and this is a great day for me to be able to lift the trophy in victory lane for Stewart-Haas Racing.”
Busch began rebuilding his career after he and Penske Racing parted company at the end of 2011. He started by signing a one-year deal with Phoenix Racing for 2012. It was a small team and Busch found himself helping in the shop.
The 2012 season was the first time in 11 years Busch had failed to win a race and his six DNF’s were the most since 2003. Still, he had a chance to win at Sonoma where he finished third. He competed in 29 races for James Finch’s team, but then moved to Furniture Row Racing for the season’s final three months. He ended 2012 with three consecutive top-10 finishes and placed 25th in the points.
Last year, NASCAR’s 2004 Sprint Cup champion returned to the Chase with Furniture Row, giving the Colorado-based operation the distinction of being the first single-car team to ever make the Chase for the Championship. He placed 10th in the standings, but it was his accomplishments throughout the season that showed his hunger to succeed. He earned a pole at Darlington, his first since 2011, and he posted 11 top-5s, his most since 2002 when he recorded 12. He completed 98.7 percent of the laps he attempted and led 448 of them.
Before the 2013 Chase began team co-owner Gene Haas contacted Busch and offered him the opportunity to become the fourth driver for the Concord-based operation. Haas wanted his name in victory lane and he felt Busch could deliver.
Sunday, Busch proved Haas correct!
“I ran a lot of my early part of my career as an individual and I didn’t respect my team, my team owners,” said Busch, who led three times for 23 laps in the race that had a record 33 lead changes among 12 drivers. “To have a team owner like Tony Stewart who’s a driver and an owner, I can communicate things to the mid-level personnel. Those are all the things that I knew I struggled with, and that I needed to communicate better to the channels of people that are all part of this team.
“It’s not just me and the crew chief or the pit crew that jumps over the wall. There’s a full channel of everybody … it’s that camaraderie … . Those Furniture Row guys gave it to me. The Phoenix Racing guys gave it to me, but we just never were able to deliver a win. We’ve been knocking on the door for the last two years and it feels great to get back there.”
To get the victory Sunday, Busch had to defeat six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. In previous seasons, there had been confrontations between them, but Sunday there was respect.
“I think things came to a head at Pocono and then Richmond was shortly thereafter,” said the second-place Johnson, who was the race’s top lap leader, setting the pace 11 times for 296 of the 500 laps. “After the Richmond race we sat down and talked (for a) long (time) about things and got through it. Through some of the struggles he’s had the last couple years …, I’ve been there and kind of advised – not necessarily advised, but had conversations with him, gave him my opinion. We’re definitely in a good place; that’s for sure. I think today was very representative of that.
At 35 years old it was time for Kurt Busch to realize that the world did not revolve around him. I know that it is just six races into the 2014 season, however, it appears that Kurt has come to the realization that he was at the end of his NASCAR road, and that his opportunities were quickly evaporating. Additionally, that Gene Haas took a huge chance on employing Kurt, and that there were not going to be any new, or better, opportunities to come knocking on his door, knowing how KyBu operated over his NASCAR career. Therefore, it seems obvious to me that Kurt has “turned over the proverbial new leaf”!
Time will be tell if, in fact, this is “The New Kurt Busch”!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!