After leading most laps, Kurt Busch ends up short at Daytona

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There’s the racing game, the waiting game and the weather game. Kurt Busch won the first two in Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, but fell just a wee bit shirt on the third.

Busch led the most laps – 36, nearly one-third of the rain-shortened 112-lap race – in what was a scheduled 160-lap event.

As the race began, Busch waited patiently until he got past early leader Matt Kenseth and had a car potent and capable enough to win.

But with so much uncertainty about the incoming weather around DIS, Busch wound up being at the wrong place at the wrong time, went from first to third on the final pit stop following the massive 25-car wreck on Lap 98 and 14 laps later, ultimately ended up third.

It was still a great finish, but if fate and strategy would only have played out a bit differently, Busch likely would have won his second race of the season – and the first ever at Daytona in his Sprint Cup career.

“I thought we had a good finish today,” Busch said after the race in the DIS media center. “You know, I’d love to be out there racing and competing for the win, and the car ran strong.

“We dominated, led most laps, and the Haas Automation Chevy was a good car right from the time it was completed and shoved into the wind tunnel, and those guys really did a good job back at the shop to prepare the No. 41 for all the speed that you need here at Daytona.

“We led a lot of laps today and thought we were in good position, and when you’re racing knowing that there’s weather in the area, it’s best to be in that lead position because that gives you the best shot at when the rain does come and if they do call the race, that you’re the leader.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t win or place, but Busch indeed showed he had a good car, good run and the promise of even more success potentially going forward from Daytona.

“Most importantly, though, we’ve made a good turn on the 41 car the last month with good solid finishes,” Busch said. “Today it’s disappointing to finish third after leading the most laps, but all in all, looking at the long-term projection, it’s been solid on the 41 car, and it was great to run good Daytona weekend, July 4th.”

Even though Almirola beat Busch out of the pits on the final stop, there’s no cause to blame Busch, his pit crew or crew chief Daniel Knost. It was just racing luck – or in Busch’s case, bad luck.

“Daniel was on top of when we needed fuel and when we were playing the halfway game,” Busch said, “as well as when we were playing the pit the last time to make it all the way to lap 160.

“And it seemed like it was putting us in a good position to lead laps, which we did.  We were leading at the time, and that’s what you want if the rain is going to come out.”

While Busch understood why NASCAR was forced to call the race when it did, he admits some disappointment – most likely because he wasn’t at the front of the pack when the decision to make it an official race was reached.

“It seems early to call a race,” Busch said. “t is Sunday already, and the majority of our fans that showed up were going to use this day to travel back home. On average how far are the fans here locally traveling to get back home? Is it four hours? Maybe we could have run later on today and still finished and everybody could have back home and to work on Monday.

“You know, the network TV side of it versus the safety of the fans, as well, with thunder and lightning in the area, it’s a tough call to make. I didn’t do my job to be the leader.  We didn’t quite have a couple solid restarts at the end to be the leader for when the race was going to get called.”

Busch hopes to build upon the momentum from Sunday’s third-place finish heading into next Sunday’s race at New Hampshire, especially as the communication and relationship with Knost continues to develop and improve.

“There’s some times when a driver and a crew chief hit it off and they’re off to the races right away,” Busch said. “Daniel and I have been slower to mature together in our relationship, and so we’re 18 races into our first date.

“Now we’re going into the second half of the season, and all of our first dates are done. We’ll go to New Hampshire and that’ll be the last new track that we see together, and then from there on out, all the tracks that we’ve been to we have notes and we have test sessions planned, and that’s where we have to make the 41 team stronger.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.