Kurt Busch hopes Chase lightning can strike twice for him, just like in 2004

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CHICAGO – Kurt Busch finds himself in familiar territory as the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins this weekend.

It was 10 years ago in 2004 that Busch became the first driver to win the then new-fangled Chase for the Nextel Cup format, a 10-race playoff that featured 10 drivers battling it out for the championship.

Busch emerged victorious and appeared headed to several more championships in the following season.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

But in a way, Busch is back in the same position as he was heading into NASCAR’s first-ever playoffs in 2004: even though it’s still called the Chase, it’s an entirely new format with new twists (three elimination rounds), more drivers (16 instead of 10 as in 2004) and there’s a lot of unknown among drivers and teams going into the 11th edition of the Chase.

“It doesn’t,” Busch said when asked if it seems that long since he won his Cup crown. “It seems like maybe five or six years have gone by. It’d be easy just to scratch off the zero (the second zero in 2004) and add a one on the Nextel Cup that I have.

“To add a Sprint Cup to Stewart-Haas’s trophy case in 2014, the team is ready. (Kevin) Harvick’s team is definitely a strong frontrunner. Our program, our strength, we’re going to wear ’em out with consistency in the first few rounds and see where we stack up.”

Admittedly, Busch would not be in the this year’s Chase had it not been for his win in spring at Martinsville. He’s admittedly had struggles for a good chunk of the first 26 races but feels a positive turnaround is definitely in the cards for the final 10 events.

“You have a formula in your own mind, you have a plan and you stick with it. If it unfolds exactly how you planned it, then you stay a step ahead of everybody else,” Busch said during Thursday’s Chase Media Day in downtown Chicago. “I don’t want to reveal all our secrets, but we’ve applied them the last two months. I like the way Kevin Harvick and I have worked together. We really tried hard with Tony and Danica this last month to get (them) that win.”

Harvick and Busch are the only flag-bearers for Stewart-Haas Racing in this year’s Chase, as both Stewart and Patrick failed to qualify. But even with just two representatives in the playoffs, Busch feels SHR has just as good of a chance to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all final round at Homestead in mid-November as any other team.

“You win by numbers and Hendrick Motorsports has four of the top 16 teams,” Busch said. “When it goes to that final round at Miami-Homestead, if we have two of our two still left, we have a 50 percent chance of winning it. You win by numbers.”

And even though Patrick and Stewart aren’t in the Chase, they can still help Busch’s and Harvick’s respective marches to the championship.

How so?

“Well, they can wreck a lot of people out there,” Busch said with a laugh, before adding with a serious second thought. “I know they won’t do that.

“Teammates do come into play. Tony and I share very similar setups. The way we drive, the way we think, Tony and I are so similar and it’s been great to go through that this year and see that.

“It’s up to us to keep track with Kevin, he has his speed and raw power, but for us on the 41, we’re the mirror image on the 14. If he finds something, that’s an extra step that’s going to help the 41 team.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”