Team: #41 (Stewart-Haas Racing)
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 21
Best finish: 1st (Pocono)
Points finish: 7th
As the checkered flag for the 2015 Daytona 500 flew, Kurt Busch was not in his #41 car, but Regan Smith was. At the following year’s 500, Busch crossed the line in 10th, his first Daytona 500 top-10 since 2009.
Busch followed up his Daytona 500 run with two consecutive poles at Atlanta and Las Vegas. The Las Vegas native displayed strong, consistent runs throughout the early portion of the season, finishing in the top-10 in all but two of the first 13 races. After the Coca-Cola 600, he was second in points and locked a spot in the Chase with a win at Pocono in June. A 23rd-place finish at Daytona ended his top-10 streak at ten races and Busch began to struggle during the summer months. In the final ten races before the Chase, Busch recorded only three top-10 finishes and had an average finish of 17.8.
The slow end to the regular season almost befell him in the Chase as he escaped the Round of 16 with the help of a 5th-place finish at Loudon. After surviving the first round, he proved his place in the Chase with two top-10s at Charlotte and Talladega in the Round of 12. A poor Round of 8, however, ended his championship hunt. Busch ended the 2016 season 7th in points, higher than his other three Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. He completed 10,348 laps in 2016, the most of any Chaser and the second-most in the Cup Series behind Kasey Kahne.
The Pocono win. The race was rained out on Sunday, moving it to Monday morning. Prior to the race, Busch lost his crew chief Tony Gibson to a suspension, forcing team engineer John Klausmeier to call the shots.
Busch started 9th in the race. While the event was dominated by Chase Elliott, Busch was in 10th for the final restart with 38 laps to go. Klausmeier told Busch he was two laps short on fuel, but the gamble paid off as he took the lead six laps later. From there, he held off the cars of Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski to claim his first win of the season, 28th career win, third at Pocono and first at the track since 2007.
“When you have an engineer calculating your fuel — I mean, it’s a calculator,” Busch stated. “I know Gibson can do it just the same, but when you have a new guy or 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 here today, I know everybody gave that much more.”
The Round of 8. Despite a solid Round of 12, his Chase hopes were dashed almost immediately in the next round.
At the round-opening race in Martinsville, Busch and teammate Kevin Harvick struggled. In the run leading up to Carl Edwards’s crash on lap 367, Busch was two laps down and last in the eight-driver points standings. He eventually finished 22nd, three laps down.
“We picked a bad day to miss it,” Busch said. “I have no explanation. I have no idea why we ran so slow.”
Texas also provided struggles for the 2004 champion. After starting 10th, he fought with the car’s handling problems throughout the race. By lap 244, he was a lap down. A caution on lap 257 enabled him to gain back a lap via the free pass, but his day quickly fell apart when he was ordered by Gibson to return to the pits to re-apply grille tape. During the stop, Busch received fuel, which was not allowed for free pass cars, and was penalized one lap. Once again a lap down, Busch was unable to recover and finished 20th.
With Busch’s championship hopes in further jeopardy approaching Phoenix, they were dashed nearly immediately as he was penalized for jumping the start of the race. Busch attempted to challenge the ruling over the radio, but served his penalty on lap eight. Now in last, he was forced to move his way up the field. Despite a 5th-place finish, he was eliminated from Chase contention.
As Busch’s sponsor Monster Energy steps up to become the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series for 2017, Busch will hope for a smooth transition as SHR switches to Ford. Whether or not Monster will return to sponsor the #41 has not been announced.
Seeking his second career premier series title, Busch will be set for another run at the championship. In the Chase format’s three years, Busch has never advanced further than the Round of 8, a goal he wishes to accomplish in 2017.
Featured photo courtesy of Getty Images