Changes Buoy Buschs Hopes

Kevin Harvick isn’t the only one who has to worry about a sophomore slump. Yes, many eyes will rightfully be on Harvick as he tries to improve on a two-victory rookie season.

But don’t forget about Kurt Busch. Had Dale Earnhardt not been killed in the Daytona 500, we’d be talking about Busch coming back from a rookie-of-the-year season.

Instead, Busch’s 2001 season was much quieter, as quiet as a season can be in which a driver wins a pole, finishes in the Top 5 three times and the Top 10 six times. Compared to Harvick (two victories, six Top 5s and 16 Top 10s), though, Busch was nearly invisible.

But you can bet one guy would notice if Busch’s performance slipped in 2002. His name is Jack Roush, the fella with the glasses, white Oxford shirt and funny hat. He also doubles as Busch’s car owner – among other things – so if Busch lost any speed, Roush would be on him like air on a spoiler.

Neither Roush nor Busch were particularly impressed with the rookie’s first season. Of course, not many people at Roush Racing were particularly impressed with anything Roush Racing did in 2001 – save Greg Biffle’s Busch Series season.

Changes were in order at Roush, and the biggest change was a swap of crew chiefs. Jimmy Fennig, the crew chief for Mark Martin – who had a mediocre season by his standards – and Ben Leslie, the crew chief for Busch – who had a bad season, too – switched places.

Fennig is a veteran Winston Cup crew chief, having won 16 races in more than 15 years. Most of those were with Martin, but Fennig also won with Bobby Allison in the mid-1980s.

The idea of pairing the veteran Fennig with the newcomer Busch seems like a good idea on the surface. Busch is only a year removed from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and he was a rookie then, too. He needs all the guidance he can get.

“Having the leadership and experience of Jimmy Fennig is definitely going to help this season, and I believe that it is a step in the right direction,” Busch said. “I think that it’s going to make a real impact in terms of planning and guidance with a rookie such as myself. Jimmy has delivered some great results in the past, and it’s going to be an honor to work with a crew chief of his stature. The learning from Jimmy has already begun.”

Busch noticed a change in the team during preseason testing in Daytona.

“I can’t quite find the right words just yet,” Busch said. “It’s just the camaraderie on the crew. Nobody is stepping on each other’s toes, and everybody is working on the same page. It just seems a bit clearer as to what the program is. I can see their work ethic on the way things are going to progress through the test and the next test and also the 500.”

Fennig is 25 years older than Busch, prompting Busch to say, “He’s like a dad out there in so many ways. He’s going to be a great mentor.”

Can Fennig be enough of a mentor to take Busch’s input and turn it into a winning effort? No one knows for sure, of course, but Fennig said he relishes the chance to mold a younger driver.

“I’m really excited about the new opportunity to work with Kurt,” Fennig said. “Mark and I spent many years working together and winning races, so I’m hopeful that I can add the experience to the No. 97 team that will help get Kurt… to many victories.”

For now, though, a victory doesn’t seem too likely. Busch didn’t finish higher than 21st in the last eight races of 2001, including failing to qualify at Atlanta. That’s hardly positive momentum heading into 2002.

With Fennig, though, Busch already has a jolt of adrenaline. A good start may not be far-fetched.

“We are well aware that the first five races of the season can really set the points race and we want to be a top contender,” Busch said. “Therefore, we feel that it’s important for us to focus on those five tracks and gain as much track time and experience as possible.

“Atlanta definitely proved to be a challenging track for us last November, so by testing there a couple of weeks before the race we should be able to gain valuable knowledge and make the necessary changes prior to heading down there for the race weekend.”

Busch and Fennig tested at Daytona and Las Vegas before the season, and they’ll head to Atlanta after the Daytona 500. That should help them get off to a good start.

After Daytona, the season’s second race is at North Carolina Speedway, where Busch qualified ninth and 11th in the two races last year. Las Vegas, Busch’s hometown track, is the site of the third race, with Atlanta fourth and Darlington fifth. Darlington is where Busch won his first Winston Cup pole last year.

“I’m really looking forward to returning to the first five tracks of the season,” Busch said. “I can’t say that there is one track that I favor over another. Of course, my hometown track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a good track for me in the past, but it’s also a very challenging track.

“On the flip side, I have kind of a bad taste in my mouth about Atlanta after not making the race last November, but I’m looking forward to heading back there and will do my best to conquer it this time. At Rockingham and Darlington’s fall races, the No. 97 Rubbermaid Ford had some great runs going, but unfortunately, late-day trouble got the best of us at both tracks, and we didn’t finish nearly as well as we should have.

“We also won the pole at Darlington last year, so hopefully we can capitalize on that experience. As for the season-opener at Daytona, it will be a challenging and exciting race. We have raced really well at superspeedways, so hopefully we will continue that trend.”

And hopefully for Busch, he can avoid another trend called the sophomore slump.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002, Kurt Busch

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