By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for the top-30 drivers in the series leading into this week’s 60th running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: 17
Career Wins: 29
The return of Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing wasn’t officially announced until December, becoming one of the final pieces of what has become well-known as “Silly Season.” Busch returns behind the wheel of the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford, marking his fifth season with the SHR organization. Busch, who will turn 40 this season, has indicated he doesn’t plan to follow Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. into retirement anytime soon.
Last season featured the biggest win of Busch’s career, as he passed Kyle Larson on the last lap to win the Daytona 500 in his 17th attempt. The victory was Busch’s first Cup Series win on a restrictor-plate track, giving him victories on every type of circuit on the schedule. It was also remarkable, as the team had made the switch from Chevrolet to Ford in the off-season. While the victory locked Busch into the playoffs, finishes of 19th, 37th and 20th in the first round resulted in the team being eliminated and finishing 14th in the championship standings.
Busch, the 2004 Cup Series champion, has at least one win in each of the past four seasons and has recorded five of his 29 victories since he joined SHR in 2014. The Las Vegas, Nevada native believes his best chance to win races and a championship is with the team co-owned by Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. The second year with Ford should help the performance of the entire four car organization, which includes teammates Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.
“I think having a year under our belt will help things. That newness stage is gone and those meetings have productivity and not people stepping on each other’s toes,” Busch said.
“I like it. I like the way it feels. Mark Rushbrook is now the director of Ford Performance with our group and there is an enthusiasm still there. I can’t talk specifics about the engine, but we have improved in the areas that Penske, Roush and us at SHR all demanded. We just needed to find a little more rear aero last year. This new system, where they will be scanning the cars in tech inspection, should help us close the gap.”
The gap Busch speaks of is to Toyota, which won eight of the 10 playoff races last season and the title with driver Martin Truex Jr. The new inspection process was developed by Hawk-Eye innovations and will replace the laser inspection system (LIS). The new system is expected to be far more thorough in its scanning process.
“The aero side, with the new Hawkeye scanning system in tech, that will be a whole new game that the teams have to learn and play within. We have hired four guys already just to try to help perfect that system for us at Stewart-Haas.”
Busch will make his 613th series start when the field takes the green flag at Daytona to start the season as he seeks to become just the fourth driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s. While the other three drivers had the same crew chief for their back-to-back victories, Busch has a new face calling the shots on the No. 41 Ford.
Tony Gibson, who served as crew chief for the No. 41 since November 2014 and has more than 30 years of crew chief experience, retired from the road during the off-season and now serves as a production manager with the team. Billy Scott takes over, moving from the team’s No. 10 car where he guided Danica Patrick the past two seasons.
“It’s something you have to embrace,” Busch said of the change. “The newness with new guys, new engineers that we’ll be working with me, and all the mechanics. But it’s tough, because I had a great group with Tony and all of his veteran guys. I loved working with those guys. And so a new crew chief teaches you new things. And I have to teach Billy new things. And that refreshed feel and that vibe around the 41 car is important, and we’re going to hit the ground running strong.”