Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – With a pole position and third-place finish at Michigan two weeks ago – and five top-10 efforts in the last six races of the season – it feels inevitable that Kurt Busch is on the verge of hoisting his first trophy since the 2017 Daytona 500.
And Sonoma Raceway’s winding and picturesque Northern Californian hillside road course is a promising opportunity for the former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champ to claim his first win of the 2018 season.
The Toyota/SaveMart 350 (June 24 at 3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has been a historically favorable event for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, who won there in 2011 and whose 197 career laps led is most in this week’s starting field.
Busch’s driver rating (107.5) is also easily tops among his competitors. Jimmie Johnson is next at 99.6. In all, Busch leads five of the six statistical categories ranking drivers at Sonoma including Average Running Position (9.9), Fastest Laps Run (88) and Laps in the Top-15 (78.6 percent) as well.
It was an immediate good relationship between driver and course.
“I really enjoyed it right off the bat,” said Busch, who drivers the No. 41 Ford for SHR. “I thought it was fun and different and I worked at it to develop the skills that I have in Legends Car races and Late Model races. I even went to the Bob Bondurant Driving School.
“My first professional type of road-course race was in the Truck Series. I jumped right in there. (Greg) Biffle won that day and I beat Ron Fellows.”
Succeeding on NASCAR’s two traditional road courses – at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, N.Y. – takes both good skill and good attitude. Often times early in the sport’s history, drivers “tolerated” the non-oval races. These days, they embrace the change in course. Sonoma has had 10 different winners in the last 11 races, with Kurt’s younger brother Kyle Busch the only multiple winner (twice) in the field.
“If you’re a good driver and you want to be in the top tier of NASCAR, you’ve got to drive well everywhere,” Kurt Busch said. “The road courses were a bit more of a specialty back in the day and you used to be able to take advantage of the guys who didn’t put forth the full effort in the road courses, but not anymore.”
“I love road racing and I think it’s fun. It’s important to have a positive mindset everywhere, but it’s not a problem for me at the road courses.”
And his results would prove as much.
He and SHR teammate Clint Bowyer lead all drivers with seven top-five finishes at Sonoma. Busch won pole positions at both road courses in 2006. He has led laps in four of the last seven races at Sonoma, highlighted by his 76-laps out front en route to his win.
This week’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race presents another prime opportunity for the series’ youth movement to hoist a trophy. The slate of most recent winners at Gateway Motorsports Park is a group of 20-somethings who have made a real name for themselves in the sport.
John Hunter Nemechek is the defending winner of Saturday’s Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200 presented by CK Power (June 23 at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio). He won at the age of 20. Before that Christopher Bell won in 2016 (then 21), Cole Custer in 2015 (then 17) and Bubba Wallace in 2014 (then 20) celebrated important career victories there before moving onto new opportunities in the Xfinity and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Last week’s Iowa winner, Brett Moffitt, is only 25.