Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Kurt Busch didn’t beat around the bushes or offer any pre-planned politically correct answer to what he obviously knew would be the premier topic for his media availability Friday morning at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contender fully accepted and embraced the fact that a penalty to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick reinvigorated Busch in the 2018 championship pursuit.
Instead of sitting in fifth place and being 25 points behind the fourth place Playoff championship cutoff position, Busch is now only three points behind Harvick as the series races Sunday on the new-look ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90).
“Being minus three is way better than minus 25,” Busch said, with a smile.
And, Busch insisted, he likes his chances against the track’s all-time winningest driver, Kevin Harvick. They are two of only four Playoff drivers (also Joey Logano and Kyle Busch) who have previous wins at Phoenix. Of course, Harvick’s nine victories are an all-time record and he won just this March.
But Busch won in the Fall of 2009 and has top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. He was 10th in the spring. And while Harvick has led a series best 1,522 laps at the track, Busch is third best among the Playoff drivers with 757 laps out front himself. He also has won the pole position in the last two Phoenix races.
“I feel pretty good,” Busch said. “This week with the penalty it’s like we won two stages without even firing up the engine on our car, and so now we’re equal and the job now is to get stage one, stage two and to see how things pan out for the end of the race.
“We finished 10th here in the spring, but we stayed out to try to win stage two and then got buried I think 25th or 26th on that restart and it took us a long time to work our way back to the top 10. We know our job is gonna be tough, but we just have to go after it.”
Certainly the unexpected change in the points differential was a well-received surprise for Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team. NASCAR found an illegal spoiler after closer inspection of last week’s race winning car driven by Harvick. The result was the loss of 40 championship points and the win is not eligible to be counted toward advancing in the Playoffs.
So instead of Harvick joining Martinsville winner Joey Logano as half of the title-eligible field at next week’s season finale, Harvick is now 22 points behind third place Martin Truex Jr. and a mere three points up on Busch. Obviously, Busch doesn’t want to see one of his teammates in that situation, but with a title on the line, it greatly improves his chances of possibly earning a berth in the Championship 4.
Even without the Harvick penalty, however, Busch insisted his team was in a good place. He has four top-10s and two top-fives in eight Playoff races. He won the pole position at both the Charlotte Road Course and Dover and led a race high 108 laps at Talladega. He’s coming off back-to-back top-10s at Martinsville and Texas.
“We’ve performed the same as the Big 3, but we haven’t gained on them, so you’ve got to do it with a win and being minus three that does change it a little bit because we watched my little brother struggle at Texas with a penalty and he lost 20-some-odd points last week, so it can change dramatically and it’s nice to have a realistic number to go race somebody and can’t just focus on one guy, though, because all of us in this grouping of eight, I think, are the most competitive eight that we’ve ever seen this far into the season,” Busch said.
“So if I’m so focused on Harvick or Truex, then Chase Elliott can just leapfrog us and go and win the race to work his way in. The same thing with Almirola, Bowyer, so it’s a really good group of guys and for us on the 41 car it’s exciting. We know we’re a good team and this gives us a really good shot at it.”
And he’ll be in good company as far as his SHR team is concerned. It is the only organization with all four of its cars still competing for final four Playoff positions. This weekend will decide which among them has a shot to hoist the trophy.
“Today is Friday, we’re still working together,” Busch said smiling about the competitive nature of the team.
“Saturday, we’ll still work together, but maybe not as much. Sunday, it’s every team and every car number for himself. That’s the culture that we have all put together at SHR.
“I learned it at Roush years ago when we put five cars in the Playoffs, you work together six days out of the week and go race on the seventh.”