DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch opened the season with the ultimate celebration, winning the Daytona 500 to open a new relationship with Ford and delighting Monster Energy in its first race as both a car and series sponsor.
Since then? It has been a mixed bag as Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing look for a little more speed, a little more ability to diagnose the right adjustment for an issue.
“That was a special moment and the highlight of my career,” Busch said Thursday prior to practice for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. “That isn’t something to rest on. I would say a few weeks after that, we were slightly hung over, not necessarily literally. It just seemed like a fog.”
Busch has not won a race — he hasn’t even won a stage — since then and sits 14th in the NASCAR Cup standings with 10 races left in the regular season. In the 14 races after the victory, he has led only five laps (he led only one in the Daytona 500), and he has finished in the top five of a stage only once.
“That is an example of how hard this sport is,” said NBC commentator Jeff Burton, a former teammate of Busch’s at Roush Fenway Racing. “And if you’re not 100 percent on your game, you look like you’re way off.
“They’re not way off. They’re a little bit off. … I never won the Daytona 500, but I would imagine that it’s emotionally a little bit difficult to win the Daytona 500, have all that excitement, all that enthusiasm in a series where if you win you’re in the playoffs … and probably naturally there’s a little bit of a letdown, but you can see in my world you can see that they’ve definitely had the performance the last month.”
SHR’s transition from Chevrolet to Ford was expected to bring challenges. Not only are some parts and pieces new, the simulation and computer-based programs that Ford provides are all different than what SHR used at Chevrolet.
So it’s no surprise that at the intermediate tracks, where the slightest change in aero can make the biggest difference, Busch has not run as well as he wished.
“The aero balance was so big and all the components are different,” crew chief Tony Gibson said. “We’re working and trying to make things lighter. … Our sim program is totally different. Our database is totally different.
“With all that going on, I’m happy that we’re making gains and doing all those little things better. All those tools we’re going to need later on, they’re all getting better and we’re learning how to use them a little better. The engineers have been hard at it and digging.”
With one top-5 finish and seven top-10s since the Daytona 500, Gibson believes his team has a car that should finish between fifth and eighth each week. It needs to find that extra speed to have a winning car every week, especially on the intermediate tracks.
Gibson said the team has not taken a long-term approach to the season after winning the Daytona 500 because the new playoff points and stage points make too big of a difference. A top-10 finish in the regular season earns a driver playoff points — points that are added to a driver’s total when the points are reset for the first three rounds of the playoffs.
“We’ve been digging,” Gibson said. “You’re trying to get stage points at the same time. That throws another element we’ve never had before.
“We’re running for our lives every week. We’re trying to learn and get better as fast as we can for the [playoffs] because when the [playoffs] comes you better have your s— together, because if you don’t, you’re going to be punched out pretty quick.”
Busch plays a pivotal role. While a team might not always want a driver to know everything about the car and getting preconceived notions, Busch has enough knowledge about the cars that he can help with that learning curve.
Busch seems pleased with the start of the season after winning the Daytona 500. If the playoffs started today, he’d be tied for seventh on the grid.
“Once we settled in and learned the balance of our Ford and how things were changing here and there, quite honestly, I think we’ve done great,” Busch said. “In half the races this year we have a top-10 finish. … We have to focus on the mile-and-a-halves and making sure we are best prepared for when the playoffs start.”
Coming back to Daytona is a happy time for the team. Busch gets asked about the win throughout the weekend, and Gibson gets asked about it, too — when the Daytona Beach native visits his family in his hometown.
“It’s fun to come back here,” Gibson said. “The Daytona 500 was just freakin’ awesome.
“[On Wednesday] night, seeing my family and everybody and going over everything that happened was just great. It was a cool deal. I’d love to be able to sweep the thing. That would be awesome. But it’s tough to do.”
While winning the Daytona 500 started off the season in grand fashion, Busch does not have a deal set for 2018. Monster Energy has not decided whether it will sponsor the car — it does half the season, SHR co-owner Gene Haas the other — next year, and SHR has not yet said whether it will pick up Busch’s option.
“I don’t have any worries,” Busch said. “I know that I delivered for the team. Our performance level isn’t one that should be in question. Winning the Daytona 500 is special, but performing week in and week out, the deliverables that I bring sponsorship-wise, that comes into play.
“I know that they’re working with NASCAR to try to sort out their issues with NASCAR and the entitlement sponsor. So there’s a lot of moving parts.”
Busch said he is confident the team will pick up the option.
“I don’t feel any fear whatsoever,” Busch said. “I actually feel really confident on the sponsorship that I bring, Ford Performance’s involvement with Stewart-Haas and how I blended in with this team. I feel great.”