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.