After fighting and scrapping throughout the Sprint Cup regular season, Kurt Busch and his single-car Furniture Row Racing team received their just reward Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Overcoming early pit woes with a pace that never flagged on his No. 78 Chevy, Busch took home a second-place finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400 to clinch a spot in NASCAR’s post-season stretch.
Of course, the job is not yet done. As he indicated on Thursday, Busch, a former Sprint Cup champion, is not here to simply make the show, but to put a second Sprint Cup on his mantle.
Still, the glassy, emotional eyes he sported in his post-race television interview seemed to indicate that he knew the magnitude of his accomplishment tonight.
After damaging his reputation with several controversies in the past, he has won back many fans with his efforts this season for the Colorado-based FRR. Now, he and the little team that can – not could, can – will be dueling with the big boys this fall for a title.
“It’s been a journey,” Busch told ESPN. “It’s been a great ride of trying to persevere and go up against the odds, when certain things are against you that are out of your control – and sometimes, you induce things that put you in the position to have to dig hard and keep working.”
Busch took the lead for the first time at Lap 66 and once more at Lap 110, but lost it after a slow stop on pit road under yellow at Lap 136. The FRR pit crew’s problems through the regular season had been a focal point going into tonight’s race.
But after that issue, Busch quickly picked himself back up, moving up to second by the halfway point of the race. His team then gained redemption on his next stop (also under yellow), enabling their man to leapfrog early contender Brad Keselowski for the lead.
Busch would eventually give up the lead on the next green stint, but kept within the Top 5 for the remainder of the night.
And with Jeff Gordon, his main nemesis for the 10th spot in the Cup standings, having to rally from two laps down after pitting under green for a loose right-front wheel, it became more and more clear that Busch was going to pull it off.
Afterwards, Busch praised his team for a job well done.
“[Team owner] Barney Visser started this with these guys in Colorado years ago, and here we are in the Chase,” he said. “And when you get a guy like [crew chief] Todd Berrier to come in and help arrange things, cut weight out of the cars, knows his way around the garage – he’s a veteran leader.”
“…We’ve got some muscle in us. We haven’t won a race yet this year, but we’re in the Chase and we’ve got a good ten weeks ahead where we can do some great things.”
The Chase begins next weekend in Chicago, and with that, the final chapter together for Busch and FRR will begin as well. Next year, he’ll move on to what will be a four-car armada at Stewart-Haas Racing.
But thanks to their work tonight at Richmond, at least this feel-good story is going to have a few more pages.
France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.
A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.
Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.
The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.
“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”
The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.
The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.
“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”
This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.
Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.
“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”
The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.
“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.
“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”
The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.
“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”
For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.
“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”
General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.
“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”
The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.
“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”