By Jared Turner
Prior to Kurt Busch winning Monday’s rescheduled and rain-delayed race at Pocono Raceway, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver had experienced a fairly quiet and uneventful season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But after going to Victory Lane and punching his ticket to the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Busch is suddenly the talk of the town. That’s because in addition to being the Sprint Cup Series’ most recent winner, he enters Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway as the defending race winner of the June event at MIS, where he owns a total of three wins in 30 starts.
No longer facing the pressure of needing a win to punch their ticket to this year’s Chase, Busch and his No. 41 team are coming to Michigan as free as birds. Like the other teams that have been fortunate enough to triumph this season, they can go for broke and let it all hang out without having to worry about how a bad race might affect their Chase aspirations.
Add it all up and Busch – the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champ – is flying high heading into Sunday’s showdown at MIS, a 2-mile, high-speed track that is a favorite of many drivers, himself included.
But despite feeling good about his current state of affairs, Busch wants his team to keep its foot planted on the proverbial gas pedal as it heads to MIS for a race that is big for many reasons.
In addition to being big for manufacturer bragging rights with its location in the backyard of the corporate headquarters for both Ford and General Motors, Michigan will mark the debut of a new aero package that NASCAR is using in just two races this year.
“We have worked collectively on some directions we want to go in, but to do that right we think the final step is to let that play out on one or two tracks,” said NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell. “And these are the two — Kentucky and Michigan — that we’ve played out and let the teams concentrate really on what they’ve done to prepare for the year. We think that’s manageable and that’ll give us enough data to look at for 2017.”
If the aero package is deemed a success, it could be implemented full time beginning next year.
“We definitely need to stay focused,” Busch said. “With this package next week, it could be the future of our sport, and you always want to start off on a good foot when you have less downforce with the splitter change and the rear spoiler change. Last year’s win (at Michigan), with the new aero package this year, doesn’t mean much. We’ve got to go there with an open mind next week and attack for the future.”
Busch will have his regular crew chief, veteran Tony Gibson, back atop the No. 41 pit box this weekend after Gibson served a one-race suspension at Pocono for infractions during the race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Although Busch is excited to have Gibson calling the shots, he enjoyed working at Pocono with interim crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, whose fuel strategy ultimately propelled the No. 41 team to the victory.
“His voice was way more calming than Gibson,” Busch said. “When you have an engineer calculating your fuel, I mean, it’s a calculator. I know Gibson can do it just the same, but when you have a new guy or somebody different and you’re not at your full strength, there’s something that happens to everybody on the team. Everybody pulls harder. Everybody digs in a little bit deeper, and not having Tony Gibson, I know everybody gave that much more.”