Kurt Busch and No. 41 team didn’t wait till Chicago to flip the switch

Daniel McFadin
NBC Sports

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — While everyone is waiting to see if Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team will turn into their usual playoff selves this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, Kurt Busch decided not to wait.

The Daytona 500 winner enters the playoffs after earning three straight top-five finishes. The stretch began last month at Bristol Motor Speedway and continued two weeks later in the Southern 500 after Busch made a request of his team.

“In all honestly, you have an off week, there’s a reset and then now there’s 12 weeks to run out the season,” Busch said Wednesday at playoff media day. “I said ‘Why are we saving anything? If we are saving anything, why are we saving it? Let’s just go now.'”

The all-out philosophy turned into a third-place finish at Darlington Raceway, his first top five at the track in seven years.

The No. 41 team answered again last weekend at Richmond, where the Stewart-Haas Racing car placed fourth. It was the first time Bush has earned three top fives in a row since 2015 when he had four through June and July.

The stretch comes after Busch only finished in the top five once in the 22 races after he won the Daytona 500.

“There wasn’t any objections and it’s been nice,” Busch said. “Everybody really jumped in to give more. All these 26 races we’re always giving it our all, but these last 10 weeks, these last 12 weeks. Let’s go after it even more. That’s the playoff intensity that I want in my guys to understand and to enjoy it as well.”

Busch hasn’t won at Chicago in 16 starts. His best result is third in 2015. With the Cup Series only visiting the 1.5-mile track once a year, Busch said he and his teams rely on research on “sister tracks” to Chicago. But for Busch, those don’t include similar looking 1.5-mile tracks.

“Chicago is a worn out mile-and-a-half track,” said Busch, who took part in a test at the track earlier this year with fellow playoff drivers Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, among others. “The test went really well for us, but you compare it to similar tracks, like Darlington. I know Darlington isn’t a mile-and-a-half, but it’s fast. It has worn out asphalt. …

“Atlanta’s a sister track and then Homestead is a sister track to Chicago. All the worn out mile-and-a-halves are the way you prepare for Chicago.”

But in going all-out at Darlington and Richmond, is Busch worried he’ll have hurt his chances in the first round?

“It could go two ways,” Busch said. “Everybody shows up in their stuff at Chicago and we’ve already brought all our stuff and now are we going to be behind? But these last couple of years we saved everything for Chicago and we run the same position. It’s as if we should have brought the stuff sooner and gathered better momentum, better finishes and had more opportunities to win races.

“Worst-case scenario, you get eliminated after this first round. So what did you do? You spent 25 races prepping for three? No way. I want to go and try to win every week and in this game it’s tough. … There’s a game within a game. I hope we made all the right moves and we can go to Chicago knowing we’ve got our stuff and it should be comparable to what everybody brings.”

If Busch’s plan works out, he could set himself up for a run at the second Cup championship of his career. He won the first title in the playoff era in 2004. He won that crown for Roush Fenway Racing in a Ford. The manufacturer hasn’t won the Cup trophy since.

Busch and his team will try to execute their plan with the knowledge that Busch’s future at Stewart-Haas Racing is cloudy. SHR announced it was not picking up its 2018 option on Busch early last month, but later added it expected him to be back in the No. 41.

Busch said “there will be” an announcement on his future as “I have more or it’s complete.”

But now Busch and his team faces the present, which includes the imminent playoffs.

“It’s my job to show them – and I’ve done that since the break – we’re going (to tracks) to win, we’re going there to execute as a team, and we’re gonna get all we can out of this playoff run knowing that there are some variables still out there as far as my contract and where the sponsorship will all line up,” Busch said. “It’s a matter of just focusing on the task at hand and that’s each practice, each qualifying session and each race.”

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