By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
There was a time I’ve seen social media comments about Ross Chastain having a golden ticket to Kurt Busch’s No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing ride after 2019 because the 40-year-old’s deal is a one-year contract.
After a thriller in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway where Kurt eked out his younger brother Kyle Busch, no way that’s going to happen.
In fact, Kurt’s 31st Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory might’ve been his finest performance yet, further proving a point of making teams better.
Yes, the 2004 series champion’s finest drive may have just taken place in 2019. This is a guy who’s had fine drives, late season rallies and ridiculous comebacks in his 20 seasons at the highest level.
This includes his 2017 Daytona 500 triumph, where he ran the closing laps without a rear view mirror. Kurt admitted on NBCSN that he wasn’t even looking at the attached mirror on the overtime restart at Kentucky.
Even better than some of his Roush runs, including the great rally from 11th to 3rd in points during the final seven races of the chaotic 2002 season. Maybe far greater than his awe inspiring run at Sonoma in 2012, driving for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing.
His win in the Bluegrass State goes deeper. It’s the fact he was able to stick on the top groove and beat quite arguably the top guy in NASCAR. He made the 1.5-mile circuit, critically panned by many, mean something in two laps than any of the previous eight races wished it could.
Further more, Kurt and the No. 1 team got their redemption from the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, where crew chief Matt McCall brought him to pit when the field initially got the one to go signal.
You know the rest. Lightning strikes and the lights on the pace truck turned back on and NASCAR brought out the red flag, which resulted in Justin Haley’s No. 77 Spire Motorsports entry scoring the upset win.
Pending on whose side you’re on and your views on Spire’s motives in running the sport, McCall got tremendous amount of flak for the call. People have even said Haley’s victory is the biggest joke in the 71-year NASCAR history, thanks to Mother Nature and McCall sending Kurt to pit.
Fortunately, he was able to redeem himself after putting him in an excellent spot to possibly score the win in overtime.
“Yeah, I think you call that racing luck, right?” McCall said about how the race fell into the team’s hand Saturday. “Today’s scenario worked out where the call fell, and I’m like, oh, no, we should have pitted. We’re in trouble here. And it worked out at the end.”
Not only McCall, but Kurt’s teammate Kyle Larson played a key role in aiding Kurt going from fourth to the lead into Turn 1, which left him surprised.
“It’s amazing what happened, for us to have that restart, to have Kyle Larson behind me in the sixth position, spotter said, teammate is going to go with you,” said Kurt. “I’m like, well, is he really? And he did, and he did a phenomenal job so that I didn’t have to look in the mirror, and all’s I had to do was play offense out in front of me, and what a battle.”
A battle indeed as the Busch brothers were side-by-side and rubbing fenders, neither were going to give an inch towards one another. Why should they?
These are two hungry brothers that won’t accept second, period. In the end, Kurt drove the living hell out of his Camaro to keep Kyle from going 3-0 in the 1-2 category, which includes the nice battle between them at Bristol this year. By just 0.076 seconds, Kurt finally dethroned the 2015 champ.
“We had a bump side draft rub right after the start‑finish line taking the white, and so it was a matter of how far I wanted to push him left, how far he was trying to push me right, and there was a quick movement and the two of us came together,” Kurt said about battling Kyle.
“I felt it, and then I could smell it. Like oh, boy, I’ve got pretty good tire rub, but I only have a mile to go. It’s going to hold, and it’s going to hold, and if it doesn’t I’m going to be yanking on my wheel to the left to take him with me. (Laughter.)”
After the checkered flag, the crowd was roaring and the crew ran to Kurt’s car with tremendous jubilation as many have never gotten the taste of victory lane, including McCall. Bear in mind, it’s the first time since Talladega in Fall 2013 the No. 1 car (then driven by Jamie McMurray) won a points paying Cup race.
This led to some great flashbacks of Davey Allison’s first Cup win at Talladega in 1987 as Kurt’s crew members got a nice ride along to victory lane, which fans and press alike raved the celebration.
Moments like Saturday are what still makes NASCAR outstanding, especially now as this season has been mostly negative from the rules package to the waning joy drivers have these days.
Kurt used to be the top heel of NASCAR, heavily booed for years. Now that’s a total far cry as each of his last three wins, all memorable in its own right, has made Kurt one of the top babyfaces with many coming around him and cheer.
You can clearly see the passion go up to 11 when he scores a win. He’s probably at his happiest point in his life and perhaps racing career as well. The personality is there and people have resonated more than his younger brother, who is the top heel of the sport today.
Now back to the big picture, I felt Kurt’s win meant the end of anybody thinking Chastain will replace him. To be frank, nobody knows if the No. 1 entry will be open or Kurt will in fact stay.
Signs say Chastain, who’s battling for a Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship, may be a top contender of driving a second full-time Kaulig Racing entry in the Xfinity Series next year.
In 19 races alone, Kurt has made the No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 from a floundering top-20 car into a consistent contender for some top-fives, even leading the Bowtie Brigade throughout the season. Should be good enough for Chip Ganassi to extend his contract and see how much further the car progress.
Like I’ve said, it has been over five years the team have won a Cup race. McMurray was able to make multiple playoff appearances, but after his Talladega win, he never won again.
Last year, it was the first time McMurray missed the playoffs since 2014 and was replaced by Kurt after the 2018 season wrapped up.
Don’t even consider the retirement talk either because all signs say he’ll run a 20th full season (21st overall) in 2020. If he ends up staying with CGR or worst case scenario, driving for another team of course.
Kurt is still a guy competing for wins and what he’s been able to do with a team that haven’t won since Larson at Richmond in September 2017, should be heavily praised.
People give Martin Truex, Jr. all the credit for making Furniture Row Racing an elite team before folding after last year, but Kurt got the ball rolling in his only full season. Despite not winning, he made the Barney Visser owned team a helluva lot better compared to Regan Smith’s four-year stint and Smith won with them in 2011.
In his final year at Stewart-Haas Racing, he scored a career-high 22 top 10s, one more from his previous best on four different occasions (2004, 2009, 2015-16). Remember, that No. 41 team used to be the No. 39 squad when Ryan Newman drove it from 2009-13. Again, Kurt made that team consistently relevant, to the point we should be saying he’s an all-time great.
Not at the level of Matt Kenseth, who’s criminally underrated, or anywhere near Kyle Busch’s status, but it warrants a nice case. His legacy that’ll stay with me may be him making teams good than they should’ve been.
It’s showing a lot in his stint at CGR as he’s currently on pace of surpassing his personal best 11.1 average finish from 2015. After Kentucky, Kurt has an 9.6, only trailing Joey Logano’s 9.2 and brother Kyle’s 7.1 average.
Talk about Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske (Kurt’s team from 2006-11, the dark ages of his astonishing career) all you want, but his run with Ganassi should be another main topic to follow going into the final seven regular season races and deep into the playoffs.
While Chevy’s top team, Hendrick Motorsports, have been able to get their grip together the past two months, both Kurt and Larson aren’t terribly far from their pace. That is of course, luck is on both sides, especially Larson.
If the No. 1 team continue carrying their momentum, I’d consider the man seventh in points a dark horse contender for a second championship once again.
Kurt said part of the team’s turnaround comes down to various parts. The ability of having a positive attitude, finding competitor’s weaknesses, the confidence he has on McCall and the gang, and Ganassi simply wanting winners.
“For me with my wife Ashley and watching her play polo and her professional athlete side of her, the power of positivity is something she’s taught me over these few years. You come in and you talk a game and you deliver it, and you do it with execution through team meetings, showing up early, staying late, and motivating guys to do a better job.
“And the way that I’ve won races in the past, I try to go after the weakness of a team and try to fix that first and then start to make things better as we go. But I’m the guy that gets to hold the steering wheel and go 200 miles an hour.
“I get the name recognition and all that, but this is a team effort. Matt, when I first met him, I knew he could be a winner, and he’s a winner now in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Tons of guys on this team, it’s their first win.
“There was a guy that is our car chief that I was with at Furniture Row when we were running up front but never winning. It’s like, I know we can win with this group, and now here we’ve done it. But it’s thanks to Chip’s commitment with Felix Sabates and Rob Kauffman, our ownership.
“They’re in it to win it, and now we’re winners, let’s grab another gear, though. Let’s try to get this thing where the second half is one of those phenomenal years.”