Blossoming at Bristol: Kurt Busch seals playoff berth after first win with new crew

NASCAR

BRISTOL, Tenn. — When a driver doesn’t win in a 58-race stretch, any victory would rank as a “no better time to win” than the present.

But throw in speculation of a driver leaving his team at the end of the year and the playoffs looming, and the victory Saturday night for Kurt Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway truthfully couldn’t have come at a better time.

Busch led the final 24 laps on the way to his first win since the 2017 Daytona 500. At fourth in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, he would have been locked into a playoff spot no matter where he finished Saturday.

By winning for the sixth time in his Cup career at Bristol, and the first time since March 2006 at the historic track, Busch showed that if he does leave Stewart-Haas Racing after the season — he said a week earlier he has talked to several teams but nothing is signed — that he won’t leave anything on the table.

“For me, you never waver, you keep focused,” Busch said. “The timing was perfect with our team jelling, this Bristol night race, to go after it.

“Then with the rumors on the outside, is all rumors. You just stay focused — laser-focused — on the task. That’s what I love putting my helmet on.”

Few doubt Busch’s talent behind the wheel. He has incredible knowledge of race cars. Some would argue too much, that it takes a while for him to jell with a crew chief and have confidence in a crew chief.

After a frustrating 2017 following the Daytona 500 and falling out of the playoffs in the opening round, Busch was given a new SHR crew for 2018. The majority of his crew was moved over to work with Aric Almirola. Busch got the crew that worked with Danica Patrick last year.

That crew, led by Billy Scott, had not won a NASCAR race.

Busch delivered them their first victory Saturday night. He said they turned the corner last month at New Hampshire where they had a solid outing.

The frustrating part for them much of the year was they didn’t improve the car during the race.

“I think we helped each other,” Busch said as he looked at Scott. “You were relying on a ton of my experience. At the same time, I’m starting to step back. The way we joke around about our setups, we’ll change this, that, the other thing, just shoot in the middle. That’s how closely we are starting to narrow down on it.

“It feels good going into each of the sessions without having big questions going into practice, qualifying or the race.”

Scott admitted it has taken some time to perfect the car to Busch’s liking.

“It takes time to learn that communication, what somebody means,” Scott said. “But I think now when he says something pretty simple and short on the radio, we get what he’s talking about.”

Busch wasn’t the only driver who qualified for the playoffs Saturday night. Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski clinched spots through points. They join previous winners this season Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon. That leaves four spots left in the final two races (Darlington and Indianapolis) of the regular season.

“He’s never lost the confidence. … He didn’t ever question whether it was a possibility to win, it was always, ‘We’re going to win, we just need to put it all together,'” Scott said of Busch.

While this win wasn’t necessarily historic, there was reason to consider it a major highlight for Busch. He now sits alone in seventh all time on the Bristol career Cup win chart with his six victories, one behind his brother, Kyle.

“You run 99 percent here all the time,” Kurt Busch said. “That’s what Kyle and I do. It pays off at this track until you step over that 1 percent line. This track just fits our style.”

Kurt also earned the 30th victory of his career, a club that includes only 26 members and one set of brothers — the Busch brothers.

“I always wanted to get to 30,” Kurt Busch said. “This is a big win for me. I grew up at Roush Racing watching a guy named Mark Martin help me. He was a great mentor. I looked up to him as a racer. He had 33, 34 wins [and] … ended his career with 40.

“Early on, before I won my first-ever race, [I thought] If I can get to 30, that’s a pretty special career. I made it tonight. I’m choked up about it. I really love this win tonight. To have six Bristol trophies is special.”

For many, though, it was their first Bristol celebration.

“Winning is great anytime, no matter how long there was in between,” Busch said. “The motivation is always there. To have a group of guys like Billy, so many first-time winners on this crew of the 41 car.

“I remember winning my first race here at Bristol. We all got special rings. I’m going to get all the guys rings on their first win. It’s big. It’s a moment. I’ve been pushing hard to get those guys to victory lane. I’m glad I can deliver.”

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