TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 05: Kurt Busch, driver of the #51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 5, 2012 in Talladega, Alabama. Busch is running the "ME" paint scheme from the "Talladega Nights" film. (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)
The Phoenix Racing driver talks about his 'good deeds' list and why second-place finishes might be more memorable than some wins.
Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues this week with Kurt Busch, who drove a Ricky Bobby-inspired car last week at Talladega. Busch, who is driving for Phoenix Racing this season, is 25th in the point standings.
SBN: What percent of the races in your career can you remember?
KB: It's funny, when you talk about wins versus like a second-place finish, I think most drivers remember their second-place finishes more than their wins. And it's because you know what went wrong or you focus on what you could have done better. Like when Jimmie Johnson won his first-ever race at California in 2002, and I finished second.
If I had to give a percentage, I'd go with three-quarters of them. I still remember my Bristol winning setup that I had from 2002 and how it helped me sweep the races in '03. And at Pocono in 2007, I led 175 laps out of 200 (Editor's fact check: Yep, Busch led exactly 175 laps).
Now, sometimes I'll mix up a spring race versus a fall race at some places. Then there was (Ricky) Craven and me at Darlington in 2003...
SBN: Well, that would be pretty bad if you didn't remember that one.
KB: Yeah, that one is pretty easy (laughs). Then there are all types of drafting races, when you remember your buddies that helped. My first time at Talladega, I had never been around the racetrack and I jumped in a Sprint Cup car and I went to practice and I'm like, "They say you hold it wide-open here?" It was a little weird going into a turn holding it wide-open the first time around a track. But I ended up finishing third that weekend (Editor's fact check: Yep, he finished third).
So it's just amazing how you remember some small things and then you forget a lot of the other races. Those races where you finish 25th or 30something because something happened, those are the easy ones to forget.
Patricia Driscoll (Busch's girlfriend, sitting nearby): I'm going to call bullshit on that one! (Laughs)
SBN: What was your first win in any form of racing?
KB: I'd have to say RC (remote control) cars. I was probably 13 or so, maybe 12. I was at Fastrax Raceway in Las Vegas. The track was carpet, and they had jumps made out of wood, and they'd move 'em around and change 'em each week.
I remember being in the Novice race, and when you won, they'd give you a ribbon – I still have that ribbon somewhere – but then they make you move up a division. It was really fun to drive the RC cars and learn about setups, and then have the pressure of being up on the drivers' stand, too.
SBN: Who is a driver in NASCAR who always seems to race you clean and you enjoy racing with?
KB: Matt Kenseth. He and I developed a great rapport early in our careers. At Roush Racing, the 6 car was the primary car and the 99 was the second car (in one shop), and at the other shop it was the 17 guys and the 97 guys. In 2002, it was a breakthrough year for me and I leaned on Matt a lot; he won the championship in '03 and then '04 was my championship run.
We changed the whole landscape at Roush Racing to where the 17 and 97 were the primary cars. The two of us were just young, hard-nosed Late Model racers, and it was just so easy to be on the same page as Matt. We still have that today.
SBN: On the opposite side of that, who is a driver you don't enjoy racing because he's so hard to pass?
KB: There's different guys and there's different times of the year when it happens. Like if it's somebody's contract year or if it's late in the year and somebody hasn't performed well, you can see their tendencies change on the track.
But I don't have one specific guy, because Robby Gordon and I got along fine – and a lot of people complained he was tough to pass – and Ryan Newman was always very generous to me, but a lot of guys say he's tough to pass. And then a lot of people say Juan Pablo Montoya is difficult, but he and I have always gotten along, too.
SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?
KB: Every scenario is different. You can usually get a good gauge on who's quicker than you and who you are quicker than. Where I seem to get up on the wheel and find myself racing hard is at the beginning of a run until the tires settle in. That might take until lap 12 or lap 20, and then it starts to settle in. So I might race 'em hard in the first third (of a run) on fresh tires. But if you find yourself holding up the guys you're racing with and the guys in front of you are getting smaller, that's when you know you're doing things wrong.
SBN: What does it feel like when the tires "settle in?"
KB: It's just when the lap times stop dropping off and you maintain. It's like a plateau in lap times. It just levels off, and everybody else is starting to lose time.
SBN: Do you have a mental list of people you owe for on-track payback?
KB: Yeah, there's a list like that – and then there's a list of good deeds that have been done. And you pay them back as well. Even a guy like Denny Hamlin, when we raced at Richmond in Nationwide, he raced me clean for the win. It could've gotten ugly and it could have gotten big. But you remember that the next time you see him out on the track. That might happen three times in a row, where I'll be generous to him. So you have your "good guy" and your "bad guy" list.
SBN: If you could turn back time and team up with a driver from the past, who would you want to be your teammate?
KB: David Pearson. Just with his demeanor, to be a guy who tried not to be highly visible, but he was one of the toughest guys when it came down to winning at the end. Just being a low-key, hard-nosed racer who just went about his business on track.
SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about something?
KB: I'm nervous every week before qualifying.
SBN: Really? What makes you nervous about it?
KB: Just that you know it's all on you as a driver to get the best lap you can. You know, life is a lot easier when you qualify fifth or sixth versus 35th or 36th.
SBN: You guys meet a lot of fans, and sometimes they can ask awkward questions. Do you have any stories of a fan saying or doing something uncomfortable?
KB: I think I went through my heavy storm early in my career, so anything that comes up now, I either don't really hear it or it makes me laugh. It's fun to have the fans and be able to do the autograph sessions, take pictures and be that close to them and give them the opportunity to talk with their hero. You don't see that in other sports.
SBN: So if someone does put you in an awkward position, how do you get out of it?
KB: It's always fun to put self-deprecating humor into it. (Grins)
SBN: If you had to choose one of these two jobs after your career is over, would you rather be a NASCAR broadcaster or a high-ranking NASCAR official?
KB: That's a good question. I think I could handle both, but I think I'd struggle with both. (Laughs) I'd go in the broadcast booth – that way, my opinion would be let off a little easier. When you're controlling a sport such as NASCAR, you have to really think through your thoughts and have a committee that you have to agree or disagree with. When you're a commentator and you express your opinion, whatever is on the top of your head usually sticks – and I'm more of that kind of guy.
SBN: What's a question you get asked a lot that you get tired of answering?
KB: "Are you better than your brother? Who's better, you or your brother?" Of course I'm going to say me. (Laughs)
SBN: I've been asking each driver to give me a question for the next guy. Last week, it was Scott Speed, and ––
KB: How come I have to follow Scott Speed? (Smiles)
SBN: Tough act to follow, but you've got it. Anyway, he wanted to know: "If you could race NASCAR either 20 years ago or 20 years from now, which would you choose?" His point was cars weren't as safe 20 years ago and drivers were daredevils, whereas 20 years from now they'd be much safer and also much more advanced.
KB: That's a great question. I would love to have driven 20 years ago. Safety, to me, hasn't been a concern. I've always just been a guy to jump in the car and wrestle it for whatever it is. Back then, it was more about racing, getting side-by-side, putting donuts on the other guy's door.
That's the era I grew up watching as a fan. I rooted for guys like Dale Sr. to rub it up with other drivers, and I rooted for guys like Davey Allison, who was a second-generation racer but jumped in there and had success right away. I always joke with NASCAR and my team: "Man, I missed the sport by 30 years."
SBN: And can you help me with a question for the next guy?
KB: I would like to ask if he thought a tire war would be good for our sport or a bad thing for our sport – like when there was a battle between Hoosier and Goodyear a couple decades ago and what it did for racing, and how it kept the tire manufacturers in check. But it can have its negatives, too.