Kurt Busch has been here before. He’s a veteran of the sport. When NASCAR first moved from the traditional points format way of crowning a champion to a playoff system, Busch won the first title. That happened back in 2004. Now, we’re in the 17th year of a postseason for the NASCAR Cup Series. While things have been tweaked along the years, one thing has remained constant, it’s a playoff and Busch is in it.
This is the 14th time Busch has been in the Cup Series playoffs. Saturday night will mark his 131st career playoff start. So, while he enters the Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN) on the playoff bubble at +7, he’s not thinking about the pressure around his No. 1 Chevrolet team.
“Fast cars and fast pit stops,” Busch said for Saturday night’s race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. “It’s not getting too far ahead of yourself and executing as a team. There’s three opportunities to get points. Stage 1, Stage 2 and the end. If we go out there and do our job, we’ve got to gain those points in the stage that way the end of the race isn’t as much as a nailbiter as it should.”
Another thing that boosts his confidence this weekend is that he’s had so much past success on the high banked Tennessee race track. Busch, has won six times at Bristol including in this very race two years ago.
“I feel like any time you can go to a track where you’ve had past success at, it’s lends to just better feelings, it lends to just going through the checklist items in an easier fashion,” said the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “Our confidence is high going into the race. We have our homework done and now I can go and race. Bristol, we’re ready to rip. We have seven points to the plus. That’s how we’ve been all year. We’ve been around that 10th place position all year.
“I enjoy Bristol. I get amped up for Bristol.”
Busch did note that there is a potential for Bristol to be a track position race like we saw for the All-Star race there. The spring race was great, but the All-Star race had no other series on the track prior and the traction compound make the concrete racing surface feel like an ice skating rink. He doesn’t necessarily expect that to be the case this week with three races this weekend before the Cup Series’ main event under the lights on Saturday, but there’s so many tweaks that can happen that can make Bristol a difficult race to prepare for.
“Each time we go back to Bristol there’s these little weird things that this track is doing that SMI may not tell NASCAR, NASCAR may not tell SMI, there’s the Goodyear tire that shows up with different stagger values even though it’s the same tire code,” Busch said of the trickiness of Bristol. “Lots of little things at Bristol.”
He said that it can be as small of how much water they put in the compound. Where do they spray the compound? How much sticky stuff is in it? The smallest details could make a big difference.
Also, Richmond wasn’t exactly a barn burner last weekend either and he says that there’s a potential Bristol may not be either despite being a cut off race too.
“The anxiety will be higher, the nerves of course. The ambiance of excitement. Still, everybody has to protect their points and the race car and not run into somebody and get a fender rub. That’s what led to Richmond’s lack of excitement and that’s what can happen at Bristol. Then, that would be a question of ‘oh wait a minute maybe we need to move this race back to August when guys aren’t necessarily worried about points as much and let the rough edges dry. Dump somebody. Wreck some cars and not have to pay such a big points penalty.’
“That’s the difference in playoff racing in that everybody is making sure that they get every point possible. Therefore they are driving more cautiously.”
Still, the intensity has to pick up as the race goes on. It’s Bristol and a championship dream is still on the line. Busch says, this is good practice for the next rounds because you have the ROVAL and Martinsville as the cut off races after. It was genius he said to make the postseason set up like this.
In terms of Saturday night, stage points are going to be crucial but without any practice before the race, you can’t guess wrong. How much input does Busch have with his guys without being in the shop?
“My phone said I have a new operating system that I can download and I’m scared to do that because I have so many meetings and so many calendar meeting with this department and that department,” said Busch. “Hendrick engines was checking in on some of the horsepower levels. New department of open lines, it’s all hands on deck right now.
“We’re staying on top of it the best way we can. I asked the shock department yesterday to have shocks that can compression and rebound adjustable shocks just in case we are off on our setup that we have to go aggressive with changes. The only time that you’re able to do that is if you’re the last car on the lead lap for a pit stop or something. You’ve got to be ready for all scenarios this weekend.
“In years past, to win Bristol, you’d set up for Lap 250. You’d set up for halfway and you would just try to get through the first half of the race the best you could. You can’t do that anymore with it being the playoffs and stage points. You’ve got to go hard right away and fill in that adjustability to be that guy in the end that can win as well. ”
So, how much does he want to know inside of the race car about the guys that he’s racing?
“There’s so many guys in the mix, wherever the points end up after each stage, I just want the plus or the minus,” Busch continued. “Then as we’re getting closer to the final 100 laps, that’s when you have to make the decision to race the guys straight up that you’re up against in the points and go into a more defensive role if you have to.
“In the playoffs, we haven’t finished worse than 13th in any stage and we haven’t finished any better than fifth. That’s the good news and the bad news all mixed in together. We just go out there again and do our job and get points in the stages. We know it’s going to come down to the final little bit on who’s above the line and who’s not. You can’t worry about it. You race off the talent of the crew, the pit strategy, the pit crew guys themselves, everybody has to do their job right now because it’s the playoffs.
“It’s what you do. It’s what we do and what we’re prepared for.”