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 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.