NASCAR MEDIA CONFERENCE
March 29, 2005
DANIEL PASSE: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the NASCAR NEXTEL teleconference. A couple small notes. This week as we head into Bristol, this week's NEXTEL Wake-Up Call will take place on Friday, April 1st, at 10 a.m. in the media center. The guests will be Richard Childress, Dave Blaney and Jimmy Bedford, who is Jack Daniel's master distiller. Today we're joined by Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 97 Sharpie Retractable Autographs For Education, Roush Racing Ford Taurus. First, let's talk a little bit about Kurt. Besides being the inaugural 2004 NEXTEL Cup winner, Kurt has been in the Top 10 in NEXTEL Cup Series competition for the 39th consecutive race week, which is currently the second longest streak behind Tony Stewart. Now, we know that Bristol has a special place in Kurt's heart. His first career NEXTEL Cup victory came at Bristol on March 24th, 2002. Busch then led 89 laps on the way to his first win. Since then he's picked up four wins at the half-mile track in his past six starts, including the last three Food City 500s in a row. Now, Kurt, I know you're going to get a lot of questions about your racing at Bristol, but I'm curious a little bit about the Autographs For Education program that you're working with Sharpie here at Bristol. Can you tell us a little about that
KURT BUSCH: Sure. It's a great program that Sharpie has introduced. The big program got kicked off at the Super Bowl with Howie Long. It's the program where we're going to go across the country to different middle schools, high schools, even elementary schools, to have kids, I'm going to want their autograph this time around instead of me giving me them mine. What the program is really set up for is to give $1 million in school supplies to schools across America. We call the program Sharpies Retractable Autographs For Education. It's a great program that I've been involved with so far. I kicked it off at Vegas at my own middle school that I went to. Then the autographs from the kids will actually ride along on my deck lid at Bristol, because we know Bristol is a great place for Sharpie and a great place for Kurt Busch.
DANIEL PASSE: I'd like to open it up to questions from the media.
Q. Why so successful at Bristol? What have you guys found?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it's been a combination of crew chief, car, driver and team. You can't be weak in one area and expect to win at any racetrack for that matter. But Bristol, it's a unique place. I went there my first time as a rookie, wrecked out real early. The fall race, Sharpie decided to sponsor it. I said, "Wait a minute, this is going to be a problem here. This is my worst racetrack and my sponsor is now the sponsor of the fall race." All kidding aside, I thought once I got comfortable with that racetrack on how you can be very aggressive with how you drive and how you set a race car up there, then be patient enough to know when to race and not get into trouble, and protect your race car. So it's a matter of protecting your race car at certain points and then being overly aggressive at other points of the race.
Q. There are some drivers who come to Bristol with a bag of nerves in their trunk, so to speak. Do you come comfortable?
KURT BUSCH: I get all juked up about it. Our team is definitely gassed up every time we go to Bristol. It's a fun racetrack for the team. Everybody that goes there, you're just in a different atmosphere at Bristol. You have to -- it's a love/hate relationship. Right now our team definitely loves going there. We're due. We'll knock on wood, but we don't want that bad luck. This time around we tested to try to help with conserving our -- continuing on with our run of three in a row. We want to do four in a row in the spring race and go there and win the Sharpie 500.
Q. Can you feel the fans at Bristol? They're so close to the racetrack. I know so much is going on in the car. I'm wondering, can you feel the fans?
KURT BUSCH: You definitely know at the night race when all the flashbulbs are going off. It's the most unique feeling we get around the circuit. When you take the green flag at Bristol or the checkered flag, there are so many flashbulbs going off, you feel you're in someplace special. There are only a few dates we have at Bristol to allow that to happen. The fans, they really let you know if you've done a good job or bad job at Bristol. It's really fun.
Q. When you're strapped into the car at Bristol, what are you talking to yourself about that you'd like to improve when you get there? You're so good at it, but you're strapped in, what's on your mind?
KURT BUSCH: The first thing that crosses your mind is to protect your race car and allow yourself to look beyond the hood of your car and to absorb what the other drivers are doing immediately in front of you because if they're checking up, you have to be able get on the brakes quick and avoid any type of wreck that's going to happen. That's the biggest thing, is just protecting your race car and knowing when you're able to race hard and when you're able to ride around.
Q. Sometimes people say there's not a strategy at Bristol because it's just so insane, yet most of the races are learning patience and strategy. When you go to Bristol, you obviously do have a strategy, but sometimes people don't realize that.
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, you have to have a game plan. At a track like that, it is very difficult to find one that you're comfortable with. If you do find one, then you can roll with it. I think that's what other past winners at Bristol have done such as Darrel Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon has won there a few times. For us, it's just a matter of getting in that Bristol groove.
Q. Can you talk about that line between being aggressive and not. Finding that line is obviously something that you have found. You got to be aggressive but know when to protect your car. It's such a fast lap around that track, where is that line?
KURT BUSCH: That's the tough feeling for some drivers, is to know when to run a specific lap time, to be as fast as you can go, but you can't do that lap time if there's somebody holding you up in front of you. You have to find that other guy's weakness. Then when you're able to stretch it out, that's usually when you're in the lead or when you're just riding around halfway through the race and there's nobody around you, you can gain some track time. But there's always going to be yellows. You can't get too excited. You just have to wait for the race to come to you.
Q. There was a time when you were criticized for being too aggressive, then there's Bristol Motor Speedway that you have to be patient for the most part early in the race, protect the car. Do you feel like that was a big step in really quieting those critics that were saying that earlier in your career?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, early on, it's your first impression, and that usually lasts quite a long time. My right foot was very heavy. I had to race hard and I wanted to go quick. That hurt me at many places. Then at Bristol, it definitely killed me. I made 50 laps my first race there. In the fall race, my rookie year, I think I was eight laps down, running all on my own. It's a place where you have to learn patience. And that was my worst racetrack, my rookie year. That definitely helped me develop as a driver as I continued on my second year working with Jimmy Fennig for the first time, he just taught me so much, I knew I had a lot to learn then.
Q. How do you think the safer walls will affect the lines at Bristol?
KURT BUSCH: We were there a couple weeks ago testing, and they don't affect the primary groove whatsoever. Even the outside groove, I slipped up a couple times, because when you're testing, you want to try different things, and we tried the outside groove just a little bit, and it didn't seem to affect the line at all. If somebody does get in trouble, they're definitely going to have a softer wall to run into, whether it's the outside or inside barrier down the front and back straightaway.
Q. When you first heard they were putting those walls in there, was that a concern, they would affect the line there?
KURT BUSCH: A little bit. But with the way that we've run at Bristol in the past, I expected us to be able to overcome that problem if there was one quicker than most. But right now nobody should struggle at all with the soft wall. They did a perfect job putting them in and nobody will even notice they're there.
Q. Couple years ago some controversy rolled into Bristol. I remember Jack Roush kind of taking up for you. Can you talk about the role that Jack has played in your developing into a champion? What do you think sets him apart from other car owners?
KURT BUSCH: What he did early on was recognize the fact that I knew nothing. I came from late model racing just a couple years before I got into Cup. I had so much to learn. He just threw me in there with the sharks and then he realized that I made mistakes, I was admitting to him that I needed some help. He's been such a mentor to me off the track, different scenarios, business-wise, as well as what he thought he could see as a driver in me. I didn't know what my potential was, but he saw it there. He's definitely helped me take one lap at a time, one race at a time and one season at a time to get to this point. So from a dismal rookie year all the way to a championship, Jack Roush has definitely helped me out.
Q. What sets Jack apart from some of the other owners? Have you seen maybe how people view him change over these last two years with this tremendous success you guys have enjoyed?
KURT BUSCH: He's always had the fans' loyalty for Ford Motor Company. What he didn't have was the respect of the other competitors because he is such a hard-nosed racer. What makes him that way is he's hands-on. He's a very hands-on owner, one you see in the garage area all the time. He's actually always checking the jets on the carburetors, trying to make the teams better. So he's a different breed from most car owners, but what that does is it brings him closer to the teams. When he's got the right people in place, good things have happened. Matt was lucky two years ago. We were very lucky. We now have two championships at Roush Racing, and then Jack is quick to say it's only two out of 18. I think he's done pretty good the last few years.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about "mindset" is an overused phrase, but now you're attacking these tracks as the defending champion. You seem to be a guy that can put that out of his mind, you can't do on what you did last year, you have to try to defend that championship. Has it changed the way you attack these events mentally?
KURT BUSCH: It has in some aspects, but it really hasn't with the bottom line of going out and driving the race car. That still stays the same. There are some drivers on the track that do yield to the respect of a champion, and then there's the times when we get out on track first because we're first in points and NASCAR sends out the points leader first and we get practice time. So there's times that it will definitely help you. Where it will hurt you is where the team will get up on a high plateau and not remember that it takes the day to adjust the race car and get it ready for the day. The championship is not going to carry us through a win on a specific weekend. We still have to adjust on the car as if we never won there where because every day presents a new challenge.
Q. Let me ask you, you've been hearing the rumors since the Mexico experiment with the Busch Series, NASCAR perhaps running a Cup race or Craftsman Truck Series race in Canada. Feelings about the race fans in Canada? Certainly a lot of NASCAR fans north of the border, there's some good possibility of them running a race up here. Make a comment on that.
KURT BUSCH: You definitely see the Canadian support at the racetracks. There's great fans. When we go to Michigan, Watkins Glen, Loudon, New Hampshire, I've even seen some down in the Chicago area, the Midwest. It's really a unique opportunity for NASCAR right now to branch out and try some of these different venues. It's almost a no-brainer that you'll have the support from the fans up there. It would be a tremendous race, whether it's on an oval or a road course. I'm looking forward to the chance to run up there. Mexico's a far stretch, going all the way to Mexico City. With the success that the Busch Series had down there, we all have to be open to what ideas NASCAR has. If there's a race and some points to be gained, I'm there for it.
Q. How has your life changed since winning the championship? Do you see things differently now?
KURT BUSCH: The guys at the valet, the hotels in Vegas, recognize me. That's been a little different there (laughter). No, all kidding aside, it's been fun to go to these racetracks and have the team behind me that won the championship, and for them to be able to absorb this with me. It's something very special, something many drivers don't get a chance to do, to be at the top level of NASCAR. It's one week after the next. We still have the normal grind of racing hard. But to win a championship this early in my career and to be able to have the spoils of NASCAR taking me around to the White House, to park first every week, get out on the racetrack first, I want to go out and do it again that much harder
Q. Do you have to be cognizant of your appearance, what you say and everything now that you have the title?
KURT BUSCH: You do in one aspect, and then in another there's different types of questions that help me be a better role model or a better spokesman for our sponsors and for NASCAR, with the aspect of now there's the leading role of being a champion, and what's the direction of NASCAR. It's been fun for me to answer those questions and to be more involved with NASCAR, to know what the actual direction is, whether it's rule changes or different sanctioning races that we're going to go to, whether it's Canada or Mexico, just being involved more with NASCAR is a better cap to wear and you have more fun doing your job.
Q. I had somebody ask me, they said, "Have you noticed that Kurt Busch has changed over the last two years, the personality?" Has that happened?
KURT BUSCH: Well, it definitely has. I want to say that it hasn't, but I've had to grow and to mature as a driver. When you're 22, 23 years old, you're running around looking for direction. If you've landed at this top level, you're somewhat not developed, you're not in your prime. So it's taken me a couple seasons to get to that point, some bad situations, some turmoil. But everything in life makes you better if you learn from it, and that's definitely what I've done. It's much easier to be more relaxed in front of the media now because I'm developed in the sense of my team, they want me around, and we're going to have some fun together, we're going to go win races and hopefully some more championships.
Q. How has Jimmy helped you along the way here?
KURT BUSCH: Jimmy Fennig has been a tremendous asset, the one that has helped me the most. I couldn't have done it without him. With his experience, with his calming hand over everybody at the team, he does a masterful job of putting the right people in the right place. Then with me out on the racetrack, asking me questions and answering me in a fashion that he gives me the experienced mentor role, and that's something for me to look up to. He's definitely the character that helped win this championship and got the 97 to this point.
Q. With the new rules in place now for a few races, I've had a couple of executives say that this is more about entertainment than actual racing. That's probably a bad question going to Bristol. What are your feelings about the quality of racing with the new package?
KURT BUSCH: Well, there's definitely a sense of drivers that are out there to try to compete and to win every race. That's going to be 35 drivers out there out of the 43. I mean, there's a good group of competitive cars that challenge each and every team to go and to do their best job. For the entertainment standpoint, it comes from the competition. It comes from drivers competing against one another. Right now there's a big Hendrick-Roush rivalry developing from the media. That's just the fact of we've got a good group of drivers on our Roush side. There's a good group of drivers over at the Hendrick side. We want to go and beat each other. I don't think there's entertainment value on the racing side of it from a driver standpoint, but there is definitely from a fan's aspect when you're not -- when you're not in tune as directly as some of the old NASCAR fans and some of the veteran fans, you're going to come from the entertainment value, learn about it, then you get involved with it as you go.
Q. With two back-to-back short-track races, does that do anything helping you going to Texas Motor Speedway in a couple weeks?
KURT BUSCH: We'll definitely be looking to Texas as a breath of fresh air to get away from the short-tracks. I used to watch NASCAR races. I think the month of September was a month spent just at short-tracks with Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilksborough and Richmond. Now we've got some of that back with a little run at Bristol and Martinsville. To have Texas right behind that, I'm going to be coming out for the Crown Royal IROC Series early in the week to do some practice, race that race on Friday, get ready for the big 500-miler. It will definitely be a different twist and a breath of fresh air for us.
Q. What are your general impressions of this season so far? You look at Carl Edwards at 3rd, Dale Earnhardt at 26th. If you're looking for surprises, are those two of the biggest surprises? Is one more of a surprise than the other? You talked about Roush and Hendrick competition. Is there any concern that DEI isn't in that competition right now, Evernham isn't quite in that competition right now? Is there any concern about that?
KURT BUSCH: Well, what I've seen so far this year with just the one restrictor plate race, it seemed somewhat of the normal fashion with DEI running strong, then with Hendrick there. I was the only Roush car that got up to the front. We still have a little work to do on the restrictor plate program. With the way that the other three racetracks raced with California, Las Vegas, Atlanta, those are tracks you could throw under the same blanket as far as setup and just the way you build a race car to go race those three tracks. Some of the other teams might not have hit the combination as strongly as you saw the Roush contingent hit it. Right now with Carl Edwards running strong and with Dale Jr. running poorly, you just have to give it some time. It will definitely flop around. Don't get me wrong, I think Edwards is a very capable driver of making the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup when we get to September. What has to develop is some of the short-track stretches where you're going to see the 8 car run well, and 99, when you don't have experience, it's tough to run strong on short-tracks.
Q. You're saying it's early yet?
KURT BUSCH: It's very early. You have to give it a good ten races to see who your characters are going to be when it comes down to crunch time to get into the Chase and then who is going to run strong during that time.
Q. Can you talk about the experience back here in Vegas when you went back to your middle school.
KURT BUSCH: It was cool to go back to my middle school, look at what I saw as a teenager growing up, then to go back as, I don't know, I'm not an adult, I'm still a kid, but just to go back and see it in a different view, going back and being a spokesman for those kids sitting in the grandstands. I remember sitting in those grandstands listening to speakers that came in and talked to us, to throw a pep rally, to mainly get us out of class. But just to see all the old faces of teachers that were around. They had me sign some T-shirts that they're going to put up in the glass case that's out front when you first walk in. It was something very special to me. It's something that I'll remember for quite some time. Then the impact that I made on the children there, to get their signatures on my race car that will be racing this weekend. I mean, just so many different events in that few hours that I spent there, it was very uplifting for everybody involved.
Q. Most important question of this teleconference for you. Give me a forecast for the Cubs this year?
KURT BUSCH: I went down to a spring training game actually a couple weeks ago, they were able to win that game that day. Right now it's the big stretch of spring training. They put in all the top players. Right now they look pretty good. I think Dusty Baker can lead them to a pennant again. If the pitching staff stays healthy, I'm excited about going to some games at Wrigley and watching them win. We'll see how it shapes up
Q. Any similarities between Dusty and Jimmy Fennig?
KURT BUSCH: You're on to something, there's many similarities. You have to have veteran experienced leaders to lead young groups of guys running around these days, whether it's athletes that jump over the pit wall and drive the car or whether it's athletes that come in out of AAA baseball or college baseball and have to run around in the outfield and infield. You have to have a strong leader and a good group of people behind you to be successful. Those are two good comparisons.
Q. You mentioned looking beyond your hood, being aware on the racetrack. Are there some drivers that you know you're going to have to race hard going into Bristol, some other frontrunners you know will be guys to beat?
KURT BUSCH: It's always a tough track to get around. When you catch a setup, it usually sticks with you for a while. Right now I've seen Jeff Gordon run competitively there. Dale Jr. really put a hurt on the competition in the fall race with the way that he won the Sharpie 500. Then there's guys like Sterling Marlin who is a sleeper kind of guy, but he is always competitive at Bristol. So we're definitely looking out for him. Ryan Newman has been getting quicker there. This time around might be one where he runs in the top five competitively. Jamie McMurray has been consistent there. There's a group of guys that you definitely watch in practice and to see what their lap times look like for the long run, and that gives us a better indication of who we're going to be looking out for come lap 400.
Q. Can you follow up with the importance of Friday, trying to get everything done off the track?
KURT BUSCH: It's one of the reasons why we tested there. We looked ahead and saw that Bristol was only going to give us two hours for race practice and qualifying practice. That's something they haven't done yet before. Two hours straight through. You're going to run out of time pretty quick. So that's one reason why we tested there. And we hope that we found the right combination to stay ahead of the curve.
Q. Everybody is talking about how you have to take care of your fenders. I guess I don't really understand the big necessity on that. It seems the aerodynamics weren't that big of a deal at Bristol.
KURT BUSCH: You're on to it, but you're off the path with taking care of your fenders. Actually, I'm talking around in circles right now. It's actually just a figment of speech that the drivers mention that when you take care of your fenders, that meant you took care of your car. You have to protect your race car. You can win there without fenders, but it's likely that you're going to damage the tow end and the geometry on the front suspension if you don't have your fenders on because you hit somebody pretty hard. If you keep your nose clean, stay out of trouble, that means you protected your fenders, that puts you in position to try to win at the end of the race.
Q. Talking about Carl Edwards. You got your first win at Bristol. Can you remember anything about your first win that stands out? Have you talked to Carl about what he can expect now that he's won a Cup race?
KURT BUSCH: One thing that stands out in my mind that's very comparable to the way that Carl Edwards won is that you have this drive within yourself to gain that first win. Something comes from within the body that you pull from within and you pass somebody on the outside or you make a move and you don't know how you passed them, but it stuck. The car is not supposed to stick, but it did. That's one thing he did, to pass Jimmie Johnson at the end of the race. It's that drive and hunger to win your first one. Then you realize that you try to go pull those moves off again and you can't. It's really weird. You have to develop a new keen sense to try to win races differently. That comes with experience, it comes with time. Edwards is definitely a fast race car driver that will figure out how to win. After you get the first one, they say they come easier. You still have to work just as hard, but in a different fashion.
Q. Is that true? Did they come easier after you won at Bristol a few years ago?
KURT BUSCH: It took me a while to win another race. It was probably another 15 or 20 races down the road. Once I won a second one, I notice how I won it differently. That is one thing that will come to Edwards as he matures as a driver. You can only driver so long at 101% before you slip a tire and you end up losing a race because you were in the lead or trying to go for the lead or not being able to get back in that position. You have to run at a pace that's comfortable for the driver and the car, and that will put you back in Victory Lane.
Q. Do you remember anything in particular about your first win?
KURT BUSCH: Just being able to go underneath Jimmy Spencer and make that pass on him. He raced me through three and four. I was up on the high side. We went down the front straightaway. I saw him push up a little bit. "This is my chance, this is my move." It's probably not something I could ever pull off again, to cut underneath somebody like that. But it stuck, it worked, we went on to win the race.
Q. Over the weekend, the rumors about Brian France exploring an NFL franchise or NBA franchise with Magic Johnson resurfaced. Does it bother you that the guy that's orchestrated all these changes in the sport the last two or three years is maybe planning the next strategy? Does it bother you?
KURT BUSCH: I was off this weekend, so I didn't really keep up with what went on. To touch on the subject, it's a sport that has to continue to change to try to compete with other venues such as the NFL or Major League Baseball, which we might have already surpassed. But with Brian France's vision, that's what created the NEXTEL Chase for the Cup, a playoff atmosphere, a situation where you have to have a regular season and then a playoff stretch where you can't make mistakes because somebody will jump on top of you if you do. That's one thing you see in the NFL, is a team that has a good regular season might get bumped off very early by a team that's very competitive in the playoffs. The way he looks at sports and has created a great scenario for NASCAR right now, he's just got ideas and he's looking around at football as another thing to be involved with. But I know that NASCAR will stay strong and continue to move forward with his leadership.
Q. Obviously you finished quite well there at Bristol, but you haven't started all that well. Why is that? How different is qualifying there?
KURT BUSCH: It's very tough to qualify good there. Some guys go for the pole and they drag their right side along the fence. You end up with a strong run. But then you've got a bent race car that you have to worry about. For us, I think I've got one top-five start, and that's one of our wins. We qualified 25th, 27th, and we've still been able to win. It's just very difficult to get those four tires to stick for that one lap at extra speed, where my focus at Bristol has always been 500 laps and be a good car on a long run. If you can run a hundred laps at the same pace, you're going to be the guy to beat.
Q. In this day and age with the so-called Busch whackers, have you ever thought about maybe dipping down to the Busch Series for a couple of races like maybe Bristol?
KURT BUSCH: My sponsors have asked me to do such. Just for that one race, at Bristol. It's like, "Man, why don't we do a few more? Branch out and maybe race some racetracks that I struggle on with the Busch car." The opportunity just hasn't quite come together. I had the wonderful chance of going from the Truck Series straight to Cup and never have run a Busch race. If I don't run a Busch race in my career, that will be something that I can hold as a feather in my cap. But if the chance comes along, we'll definitely look at the package in putting it together.
Q. I know you said at Vegas that the advice to your brother is Kyle is over, but this is his first venture in a Cup car at Bristol. Has he knocked on your door for any tips at this track?
KURT BUSCH: Yeah, he did before Vegas. I'll still try to be an avenue for him to go down, maybe not define things as clearly. Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to help him out. I just wanted to be sarcastic after that race in Vegas, saying he beat me. I said it was fair and square at the time, but it looks like it wasn't as fair and square as it turned out to be. Kyle and I are definitely having fun in the Cup Series. He's in Martinsville today testing. I think the phone was ringing earlier.
Q. I watched you go back to your holler from the garage to get a gold Sharpie so you could autograph a souvenir for the fan. I thought that was a nice gesture. How much do the fans influence your day-to-day efforts?
KURT BUSCH: They definitely influence the way our sponsor looks at our racing program, whether it's from the souvenir standpoint or whether it's from the product standpoint. Fans are great everywhere we go, and some of them are definitely in tune with the Sharpies. They have all their colors, they have the silver, the gold, big ones, the little fine-points, you name it. Fans definitely create the reasoning for sponsorship in NASCAR. If there's anything I can do to help them out, and when they have access to the garage, that's definitely the place to make an impact on them.
DANIEL PASSE: Thank you, Kurt, very much for joining us. Good luck this week in Bristol. Thank you, everybody, for your participation. We'll see you at the races.
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