News Analysis: Kurt Busch’s contract option will not be picked up

What happened: Kurt Busch’s contract option to race at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 won’t be picked up by the team, the Daytona 500 winner has been told. The news was first reported by Jerry Jordan of KickinTheTires.net on Sunday, but Lee Spencer of Motorsport.com posted Tuesday that “the expectation is that Busch will not drive the No. 41 Ford for SHR in 2018.” Moments later, NBC’s Nate Ryan also posted Busch’s contract will not be picked up. But shortly after those stories, SHR tweeted a denial: “We don’t comment on contract status, but we expect @KurtBusch back in our @MonsterEnergy / @Haas_Automation Ford in ’18. Just sayin’.” I asked for clarification from SHR on this, but was told to just refer to the tweet.

What it means: Busch is a free agent. Jordan and Spencer both have solid relationships with Busch, so the news his contract option wasn’t picked up is almost certainly accurate. However, that doesn’t mean SHR won’t bring Busch back with a renegotiated deal, which is perhaps why it issued a denial. The Monster Energy piece of this is the big question, because Monster likely was balking at sponsoring both the series and a race team (after all, it got a pretty good bargain on being the Cup title sponsor). We still need more information to understand what’s going on here, but the best guess is SHR told Busch it wasn’t bringing him back under the current deal, freeing him to look elsewhere while also hoping to negotiate a new deal with better terms.

News value (scale of 1-10): 8. The news of Busch’s option not being picked up is about a 5, but I’m rating this so highly because we aren’t actually sure what’s going on here. Media reports said one thing and the team said another thing, which is very unusual in NASCAR. Either way, it’s gotten everyone’s attention today.

Three questions: Um, what the hell? Is Busch really out, or is this confusion driven by Monster’s unorthodox way of conducting business? When will SHR let everyone know what’s going on with its other Silly Season situation — Danica Patrick?

12 Questions with Kurt Busch

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch of Stewart-Haas Racing. I spoke with Busch at Dover International Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say that it’s a balance of both, but in all honesty, my dad, Tom, taught Kyle and I everything about the race car. First up was how to work on it, and that taught us how to respect it. And then (was) how to race it. He was always there helping us with our go-karts.

You know what’s funny is that I always looked forward to watching the race with him on Sundays as a kid, because he would point out certain things that the veteran drivers were doing, like Dale Sr. was doing this or Bill Elliott did that, and it was really neat to digest that and then apply it to the little go-kart we had.

Does he still give advice from time to time now?

Oh yeah. He hasn’t slowed down one bit. (Laughs) He still knows it all.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

There’s the opportunity in NASCAR that’s different than any other sport and that is that we have 40 guys that take the green flag every weekend. There’s two sports teams usually, like right now it’s the (Golden State) Warriors against the (Cleveland) Cavaliers (in the NBA Finals), and are you a fan of either? Usually by this time of year your guy or your team is out of it, and so you choose one or you move on to another situation.

But I always encourage people to stay involved in NASCAR and find a driver that they think is similar to their driving style or to their demeanor (or) to their ability of fun level. I think the fun level is what this sport needs to continue to focus on. Everyone talks about power rankings, stages, points, wins — let’s talk about fun level.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

That’s a good question. My job is great, I love it. There’s always so many different hats you have to wear, whether it’s a media hat, a sponsor hat, working with the crew guys and the engineers, studying wind tunnel numbers.

That’s maybe the toughest part right now, balancing all the rule changes of NASCAR and trying to find a common thread on how to get that advantage. The sport is all about having that advantage and being the top team, and right now we’ve been working our buns off balancing all of the different things that are changing.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Oh sure. There’s a moment in time where you always have that one chance to make a new fan or to keep a fan of the sport of NASCAR. It’s nice when you’re done eating to come over.

I remember one time — it was actually here in Dover, Delaware — where I was having ribs and somebody wanted me to sign what they wanted me to sign. I was like, “Guys, I’m eating.” They were just so ecstatic, they wanted me to sign and I really had rib barbecue sauce all over my hands and signed what they wanted signed. They wanted that part of it as well.

Here’s some barbecue sauce from my meal. It’s like an extra souvenir here.

Yeah, it was like icing on the cake.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would say it’s just the genuine racing on the track and who’s doing what and how that move or pass happened. It’s similar to like old-school journalism on where guys were out-dueling each other out on the racetrack.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I had lunch with Matt Crafton this week, so maybe that was the last driver I texted.

That would make sense.

I do need to text Jimmie Johnson, though. My wife’s playing polo and his buddy Nacho is playing polo, and so we gotta figure out if we’re gonna go watch polo.

That’s something you’d never thought you’d say a few years ago, right?

Yeah. Polo, right?

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah there’s that aspect of it. Ultimately we’re just hardcore racers, and then you learn at this level the TV side of things because we’ll be like, “The track’s ready to go, the track’s green,” but we still got another hour or so before live TV hits. So there’s a little bit of that, but at the end of the day you just roll with it and focus on driving the car.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I haven’t used it in a while because it came with so many penalties — not from other drivers, just from NASCAR. Honestly I haven’t used it in a while. It’s usually when somebody does something so blatant and that blatant moment was backed up by three consistent blatant moments. So you usually need to have three strikes to get something pretty big.

So three strikes, then the finger.

Yeah, I would say.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, you have all the different lists. Like when we get to the cutoff for the playoffs and you know guys are really pushing hard to run consistent and to get into the playoffs. Then there’s the good guy list, the bad guy list; you keep track of it all. That’s an element that if you’re good at that situation, you’re in that top percentile.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’m trying to think. I had a beer with Reggie Jackson the other day.

That’s pretty cool. How was that?

It was pretty solid. We were hanging out at the Yankee Club restaurant in New York City, but I don’t know (about dinner).

Oh, I got it. We just finished Indy, so Indy’s fresh in my mind. Having dinner with Mario Andretti at an Italian restaurant in Tampa, Florida, was one of the coolest moments that I’ve had. To sit down with him — I had my family, his family there was really neat.

That’s awesome, especially being able to pick his brain and stuff like that I imagine.

Just hanging out in one of his cool Italian spots and the way that racing was the anchor of the conversation. I saw the joy in my dad’s eyes and the way that everybody was really just chill, but really engaged in the situation.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My ability to communicate. I’ve had things in my head all the time on what I’m thinking or what I would like to see happen with the car or it could be something simple as schedule.

I think I told my wife the other day, “Yeah, we’re gonna have lunch when we get to New York City and we’ll meet up afterwards,” and she was just confused if she was doing lunch or if I was just doing lunch. It’s a little thing. I think that’s just a part of being husband and wife, but honestly I can do a better job with Tony Gibson and anybody that works at Stewart-Haas, just to be clear on communications.

12. The last interview I did was with James Hinchcliffe because I went to the Indy 500. His question was: “Do you think that Jimmie Johnson will be able to break the championships record, and if so, how many do you think he’ll end his career with?”

I’ll answer your question, James Hinchcliffe, in reverse. I think he’ll end with eight. I think if he gets it, he’ll be done; he’ll walk away, drop the mic. Will he get it? I’ll tell you, the combination of Chad Knaus, Rick Hendrick, Lowe’s, Jimmie Johnson — that is a power package that has never been assembled and probably never will ever again, and it’s mind-boggling to see their results and watch them continue each and every year to power through it. I wish them all the best. I think they’ve got the best potential out of everybody to ever set that type of record.

Will he do it? I’m on the fence; I’m 50/50 because I’m out there still competing and I don’t want him to get another one while I’m out here. I wanna get one. I wanna get another one. So we’ll see how it pans out. I’m gonna say 50/50 that he gets it, but when he does, 100 percent he’ll drop the mic and walk away.

The next interview that I’m doing with is with Paul Menard. Do you have a question that I could ask Paul?

What’s the slogan for Menard’s? “Everything’s better at Menard’s,” or what’s the slogan? Oh, “Save big money at Menard’s.” So I wanna ask Paul Menard who came up with that tagline, and then if he was ever a box boy or a bag guy at Menard’s.

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Paul Menard will not be the next 12 Questions interview. Due to another interview running long, I was late for Menard and he was unable to reschedule the interview for the Dover weekend. My apologies.

The Top Five: Breakdown of the Daytona 500

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Next up: the Daytona 500.

Stars align for Kurt Busch, Monster and Stewart-Haas

Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 victory was one of those things that just sort of makes sense in a head-shaking way.

Busch had never even won a restrictor-plate race and was 0-for-63 at Daytona and Talladega entering Sunday. Yet in Monster Energy’s first race as Cup Series sponsor, the car carrying the Monster logo ended up in victory lane.

Perfect!

It was also the first race without Tony Stewart as a full-time driver — and he went to the winner’s circle as a car owner after never winning the 500 himself.

Naturally!

Plus, the win came during a turbulent time for Stewart-Haas Racing — a move to Ford this season with uncertain results ahead, trouble finding sponsorship for two drivers and a lawsuit against a now-former sponsor.

Great timing!

It was only two years ago that Busch was suspended for an alleged domestic violence incident, forcing him to miss the 500. Since then, the woman who accused him was indicted for stealing from the charity she ran and Busch got married in the offseason to his new wife, Ashley Van Metre.

There always seems to be an answer for Busch, a comeback around the corner, a second chance, another shot.

Just look no further than this Speedweeks. It began with headlines about Busch getting sued by his former agent and ended with Busch earning NASCAR’s greatest prize.

Of course!

Drivers ‘scared’ to make move at the end

After a wild race that eliminated more than half the field, it seemed like the remaining drivers were hesitant to make a move and form two lines in the final laps.

Joey Logano kept trying, ducking down over and over to see if he could get anyone to go with him. It didn’t work, and the result ultimately allowed the leaders to stay in line and determine the win themselves.

What gives? I asked Logano why no one went with him. He opened his mouth but no words came out, and he just shrugged.

“Scared, I guess,” he finally said. “I don’t know. I don’t have any answer.”

Logano said he was shocked everyone decided to play it so conservatively.

Here’s a guess: Some of the drivers in the top 10 — like AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard — obviously wanted to win, and would have made a move if it presented itself. But instead of forcing something, it was better to stay put for a sure-thing finish rather take a risk for the win and potentially drop back to 11th.

Each of them ended up with a top five to start the season, so you can’t fault them; but you can also understand Logano’s frustration.

Another upset for underdog Matt DiBenedetto

For the second straight year, Matt DiBenedetto scored an impressive finish in a car that had no business being that good in a Cup race.

DiBenedetto finished ninth in the Daytona 500, climbing out of his car to the cheers of his family and new GoFas Racing team on pit road (they literally clapped and yelled as he got out).

I asked him whether this finish was better than his sixth-place result at Bristol for BK Racing last spring.

“This one was a little more survival, that one was a little more racing,” he said with a smile. “I’d say they were different feelings. But the Daytona 500, just being in it in the first place is unbelievable. This one feels really good, because it’s been my dream since I was 5 to even be in it. So to get a top-10 in it, man, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Honestly, there were several great stories in the top 10. Look at Michael Waltrip! (You probably didn’t have a choice on the post-race show, but still…) The guy finished eighth in the Daytona 500 at age 53 and ended his career with a top-10. Not bad.

Also, Brendan Gaughan finished 11th — his best finish in a Cup race since Homestead…in 2004!

Kyle Busch throws down with Goodyear

No matter how much Kyle Busch changes over the years, one thing is consistent: If his equipment lets him down at an unacceptable level in his eyes, Busch is going to sound off about it.

He’s ripped Toyota engines, for example, as well as Goodyear several times. And on Sunday, it was the latter who drew his ire again after he spun and started a crash that took out several cars, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth.

“Goodyear tires just suck,” he told reporters in his garage, according to Yahoo.

He also told FOX that Goodyear’s tires “aren’t very good at holding air.”

Yeesh. That’s probably not going to go over very well, but I also doubt Busch regrets his comments.

I asked Goodyear director of race tire sales Greg Tucker for his company’s side of things. He said Goodyear found evidence of a rub or a cut on Busch’s left rear tire, but the No. 18 team felt it was the right rear that went down. Stucker said there was a break on the right rear, but was inconclusive as to whether it was there beforehand or was caused when Busch spun and crashed.

Stucker acknowledged it was “tough for anybody” to hear criticism like Busch’s but said the top priority was to “get the facts and get it back to the team.”

So will Goodyear speak with Busch? Stucker said Goodyear has a regular call with the whole JGR team.

“It’ll come up there and get discussed at that point,” he said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. escapes wreck with no injury

Earnhardt hit Kyle Busch’s car hard during Stage 2, which ended his Daytona Day. But it was a very respectable return — he was at the front when the incident happened — and he also showed the ability to take a decent hit without sustaining a concussion.

That sounds like a low bar for safety, but it has to be somewhat of a relief.

Afterward, the driver credited work on the headrests for keeping him safe.

“We changed some things in the interior that I feel will help me going forward,” he said. “I just appreciate all the effort NASCAR has put in to safety. I know we say that a lot, but if they hadn’t put the money into the studies that they did, I probably would have gotten hurt again right there.”

What exactly were the headrest changes? Earnhardt said the team “closed it up to where we really have no gap on each side.”

Basically, a driver’s head usually leans one way before hitting the wall and then slams over to the headrest on the other side (“It’s like hitting a baseball bat when you get there,” Earnhardt said), even if it’s only a couple inches of a gap.

But by making the headrests so close together they basically cradled his helmet, Earnhardt was able to absorb less of a jarring impact.

“The car itself sees a whole lot less (G forces) than the body does, and if you close (the headrests) up, you can minimize the Gs and get closer to what the car is seeing in those impacts,” he said.

It wasn’t too long ago, Earnhardt said, that drivers didn’t even want left-side head rests. They wanted room to be able to move around; now, that’s been proven to be more dangerous.

“That was really, really smart for us to go and have those meetings with NASCAR and say, ‘Hey, what can we do better?’ and talk about it,” he said. “That’s something I’m happy I did.”

2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks

Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

  • Clint Bowyer
  • Kurt Busch
  • Kyle Busch
  • Austin Dillon
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Chase Elliott
  • Denny Hamlin
  • Kevin Harvick
  • Jimmie Johnson
  • Kasey Kahne
  • Matt Kenseth
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Kyle Larson
  • Joey Logano
  • Jamie McMurray
  • Martin Truex Jr.

A few expanded predictions:

— Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

— Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

— All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

— Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

— Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

— Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

— I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.