Story By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – KANSAS CITY, KS – Kurt Busch set the fastest lap in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series final practice session at Kansas Speedway on Friday afternoon as drivers prepared for Saturday night’s Digital Ally 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It was a big statement for the veteran who is winless in 26 previous starts at the 1.5-mile track in America’s Heartland – the longest streak in the series. But Friday’s fast work is exactly the kind of effort Busch has turned in all year, his first season driving the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet.
The 40-year old smiles about his “one-year contract” with Ganassi and has been open-minded and candidly optimistic about a return in 2020 if he fares well all season.
He’s had seven top-10s in the opening 11 races of the season, including a runner-up showing at Bristol, Tenn. and a third place effort at the Atlanta 1.5-miler. It’s the best season start in four years – since he started the 2016 season with nine top-10s.
And Busch has certainly had a promising start to his Kansas weekend. Even so, the 2004 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion likes that his car is fast but reminded everyone that no one knows exactly what to expect in Saturday night’s race.
“Right now, a lot of people are kinda bouncing all around in their set-ups and that’s why there’s a lot of action,’’ Busch said.
His Chevy camp comes to Kansas with reason to feel optimistic. Chase Elliott earned the make its first trophy of the season at Talladega two weeks ago, leading a 1-2-3 sweep atop the results. And so far this weekend at Kansas, the bowtie brigade has been fast.
Busch led final practice with Chevy’s Alex Bowman – who has finished runner-up the previous two races – second quickest. Bowman’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Elliott (sixth), three-time Kansas winner Jimmie Johnson (10th) and second-year driver William Byron (11th) were also fast in that last practice.
“The package here this weekend has been intense, it’s been fun, it’s a challenge already with the way practice has been shaken up,’’ Busch said. “Out there by yourself you’re wide open, and it almost gives you an indication your car is handling too good.
“Then you jump into the draft and you’re out there in a pack drafting like you’re at Talladega and the car is all over the place, pushing, loose, sliding all around. It’s a big challenge.”
Although he has not hoisted a Cup trophy in Kansas yet, Busch has shown reason to be optimistic. He finished runner-up in the 2013 and 2017 Fall races here. He won the pole position and led a race best 152 laps in the 2011, Spring race only to finish ninth.
Busch has two top-10s in the last three races at the track, however.
With so many unknowns, a veteran like Busch appears ready and poised to seize the opportunity that Kansas presents.
“There’s the Talladega and Daytona effect that’s happened on the mile-and-a -halves because we are wide open,’’ said Busch, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner.
“The handling comes into play but what happens is that it’s more like a light switch and that’s where the good teams will learn how to take off the sharpness and edginess the cars have and that way you’ll race better in the pack, race better in the draft.’’