NOTEBOOK: Kurt Busch is thankful Sonoma helped jumpstart his career
By: Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
A year before he made his first start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Dover International Speedway in the fall of 2000, Kurt Busch was competing in what was then known as the Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring.
On the same June weekend in 1999 that NASCAR's premier series was visiting Sonoma Raceway in California, the 20-year-old driver from Las Vegas, Nev., drove to Victory Lane at the Northern California road course in the Featherlite Southwest Series race that preceded the main event. Busch eventually went on to capture the series title that season.
Fourteen years and one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship later, he credits his win at Sonoma with putting him on the map.
"I think a lot of Cup teams were interested to see how the race was going to play out and they watched the Southwest Tour race with more strategic thought that year," Busch said. "After winning the race it seemed like things moved a lot easier in my racing career and I have the Sonoma track to thank for that."
This weekend when the NASCAR caravan arrives in Sonoma for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT), he will be looking to channel the same magic he had 14 years ago. The race will also be the first road-course test for the new Gen-6 car.
Heading into the 16th race of season, 11 races before the cutoff for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Busch sits 20th, after a 35th-place finish at Michigan dropped him five positions in the standings. He is currently 154 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
"We threw away a bunch of points in Michigan last week after having a really fast race car," Busch said. "We need to rebound and get some of those points back."
While Busch hasn't yet found Victory Lane in 2013, he's had some strong finishes mixed with some not-so-strong performances. He has three top-five and five top-10 finishes. His best finish this season was a third in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
However, he's only finished on the lead lap in eight races and accidents have led to DNFs in two races (Martinsville, Talladega). If he's going to make the Chase for the seventh time in his career, he needs to put together a string of solid performances, including a win or two.
In 2004, Busch won the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in the Chase's inaugural year, but hasn't finished higher than fourth (2009) in the final standings since. A win Sunday could put him on track for a berth in the Chase and perhaps a run at the championship.
Regardless of where Busch finishes the season in the rankings, it will most likely be the highest finish by a Furniture Row Racing driver, which would be a major stepping stone for the single-car team that continues to make strides.
In 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at Sonoma, Busch has one win, five top fives and one pole. He has been running at the finish of all 12 races and has finished off the lead lap only twice.
Two years ago, he led 76 of the 110 laps in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 to beat Jeff Gordon to the checkers by 2.685 seconds. On the 88th lap, Busch passed Regan Smith and stayed out front for the final 23 circuits around the road course.
In 2005 and 2012, Busch finished third. His other two top fives are a fourth-place finish in 2002 and a fifth-place finish in 2006.
Over the past eight races at Sonoma, he ranks among the top five in most loop data categories: average driver rating (first -- 107.8), laps led (first -- 108), average running position (first -- 9.2), laps in top 15 (second -- 705), speed in traffic (second -- 88.673 mph), fastest restarts (second -- 87.443 mph), average starting position (third -- 9.1), green-flag speed (third -- 89.684 mph), fastest late in a run (third -- 89.296 mph) and fastest early in a run (fifth -- 90.068 mph).
Tony Stewart and Marcos Ambrose are two drivers to start for on your fantasy team for Sunday's race at Sonoma. In 14 starts at Sonoma, Stewart, a three-time series champion, has celebrated in Victory Lane twice (2001, 2005). In addition, he has five top fives and nine top 10s. His loop stats over the last eight Sonoma races are equally impressive among active drivers: first -- fastest laps (79), laps in top 15 (706), quality passes (252), speed in traffic (88.945 mph), green-flag speed (89.877 mph), fastest early in a run (90.375 mph); second -- driver rating (107.5), average running position (10.0), fastest late in a run (89.437 mph); and third -- fastest restarts (87.209 mph). Although Ambrose has never won at Sonoma, he is a road-course specialist that has performed well at the Northern California track. In five starts there, he has finishes of 42nd (a transmission issue ended his day early), third, sixth, fifth and eighth. His loop data stats reflect his success at the track: first -- average starting position (5.0), fastest late in a run (89.491 mph), fastest restarts (87.911 mph); second -- green-flag speed (89.807 mph); and third -- driver rating (106.8), average running position (10.9), speed in traffic (88.593 mph) and fastest early in a run (90.172).
PIQUET RETURNS TO SITE OF ONLY NATIONWIDE WIN
On June 23, 2012, in only his third start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Nelson Piquet Jr. proved that he belonged there.
That day at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., Piquet started on the pole and led the first two laps. He didn't lead again until 32 laps later when he regained the lead from Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 34. Piquet didn't relinquish his position on the point and led the final 17 circuits around the 4.05-mile road course to seize his first victory in the series.
As a full-time driver in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2012, he only made one other NASCAR Nationwide start that season (Bristol). However, Piquet moved up to a full-time ride for 2013 and will look to defend his only series victory Saturday at Road America in the Johnsonville Sausage 200 Presented by Menards (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Piquet is currently 13th in the standings, 159 points behind leader Regan Smith. Last Saturday at Michigan, Piquet posted his first top 10 of the season when he finished ninth. Outside of poor finishes at Bristol, Talladega and Iowa where he got caught up in accidents in all three races, the Brazil native has finished no worse than 20th. Not bad for his first full season in the series.
"I really enjoy going to Road America and look forward to making my return this weekend," he said. "We are coming off our first top 10 of the season after a solid run last weekend in Michigan."
Piquet is not the only driver with limited experience at the track. Since the series has only competed there three times (Carl Edwards and Reed Sorenson winning the first two competitions), several drivers slated to race Saturday will be making their track debuts, including AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Travis Pastrana, Smith and Brian Vickers.
Although Piquet has only faced competition at Road America once in the series, he still ranks first or second in most loop data categories: first -- average driver rating (142.6), average running position (4.600), fastest on restarts (103.332 mph), green-flag speed (106.116 mph), speed in traffic (106.549 mph); and second -- laps led (19), fastest laps (11), fastest late in a run (106.147 mph).
If he and his race car perform similarly to how they did in their last trip to the Wisconsin road course, Piquet could be celebrating his second series victory Saturday night.
"If we run a smart race, I think we have a really good shot at defending last year's win," he said.