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Sunday, August 14, 2011

We Snag a Seat on Kurt Busch’s War Wagon During the Coke Zero 400 – Feature

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Embedded: We Snag a Seat on Kurt Busch’s War Wagon - FeatureSpending the race in the pits with the Shell-Pennzoil NASCAR team at the Coke Zero 400.BY STEVEN COLE SMITH, PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT BOWLIN
July 2011


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At select NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the Shell-Pennzoil team's "Best Seat in the House" program allows a reporter to sit atop the pit box—a.k.a. the war wagon—for the entire duration and monitor the radio conversations with driver Kurt Busch, crew chief Steve Addington, and the team spotter.

We're sort of shocked that the program survives.

That's because it included the spring race at Richmond, which was a disaster for Roger Penske's team. A frustrated Busch took to the radio and vented about the car, the crew, and a particular Penske executive. The communications are public, with plenty of fans and media members listening in, and all were stunned to hear Busch yell, "We look like a monkey [blanking] a football! The [blank] Penske [cars] are a [blanking] joke. [Blank], everybody." It should be noted that team owner Penske was in Brazil when this happened. Busch later apologized, noting that airing dirty laundry in public is seldom a good idea—although changes to the team were made the following week.

Fast-forward to July's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, and we're the ones atop Busch's pit box, monitoring the radio for outbursts and watching the multiple video screens mounted above the seats. We're close enough to offer advice to Addington, should he ask our opinion, on whether to take two tires or four on the next pit stop. Surprisingly, he does not.

About Kurt Busch: To say that the 32-year-old elder brother of fellow racing driver Kyle Busch is high-strung and competitive would be an understatement. He won the NASCAR championship in 2004, and he is capable of downright brilliant drives. His win at Atlanta last year was a stunning performance, with Busch sliding the car around as though he were dirt-tracking, an inch from the wall. Kurt Busch is a racing driver. It's that talent that has Busch solidly in the top five in points, and he's pretty much a cinch to make the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup, where points are essentially erased, and 12 select drivers start over again, playoff-style, over the last 10 races for the title. Busch's Penske teammate is relative newcomer Brad Keselowski, who is further back in the points but does have a win and a pole. Busch also has a win, and three poles. All told, it has been a pretty good year for the Penske Dodges, especially the Shell-Pennzoil team.

Kurt would love another championship, and crew chief Addington may have something to prove, too. He used to be the crew chief for Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs–owned Toyota, leading Kurt's brother to eight wins in 2008 and four in 2009 before being relieved of his duties for the 2010 season. Kurt called Addington, now 47, and he replaced Kurt's departing crew chief. Despite the meltdown in Richmond, the two have found a comfortable chemistry, something they would need at Daytona. Although Busch has won 23 Cup races—and more than $50 million—in his career, he has never won at this track.

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The pit stall immediately to the left of Kurt Busch's appeared busy right before the race, but a closer look revealed that only two people actually work for the No. 60 Big Red Soda Toyota of Germain Racing, driven by Mike Skinner. One employee was perched atop the modest toolbox, the other sat guard over the one set of Goodyear tires the team will soon return. No. 60 is a "start and park" car, meaning the team qualifies, starts the race, and then pulls out at its first opportunity. (Click here for our feature on the practice.) NASCAR's payouts are large enough that this strategy can sustain a team, and it doesn't have to risk crashing or blowing up or paying for a big crew or six sets of tires. NASCAR requires such teams to have some modest tools and one employee on the radio at the start, to at least give the appearance that they're there to race. Why did Busch and crew chief Steve Addington choose the stall next to Skinner's? Because when Skinner pulled out of the race—he did so due to a "wheel bearing" problem after five laps, good for a 40th-place finish and an $84,000 check—the stall would be empty for the rest of the 170-lap race, meaning Busch wouldn't have to steer around another car when he tore out of his own pit. It's good for at least half a second. Check out the video of a Busch pit stop below to see what we mean.

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Off-season aerodynamic rule changes have led to weird, "two-by-two" racing at Daytona and Talladega, the only tracks on the circuit fast enough to require NASCAR-issued, horsepower-robbing restrictor plates that teams bolt beneath the carburetor to slow the cars. Where races at Daytona and Talladega were once characterized by enormous packs of cars drafting in a straight line—the idea being that six or seven cars in a row, bumper to bumper, went faster than one car by itself—now it's just two cars hanging together at a time. The big packs don't work.

Drivers essentially pick a dance partner—often before the race, but swap partners when on-track incidents interrupt—and circle one behind the other, the second car usually touching the bumper of the car in front. They frequently swap places, because the second car tends to overheat quickly, as little air reaches the radiator. And as you would suspect when two cars are touching bumpers at more than 190 mph, accidents happen. At these restrictor-plate races, fans, drivers, crews, and the media await the "Big One," where one car gets out of shape and collects a dozen others. It seems inevitable. On this particular night, it was.

This is a good place to mention too that before the race Busch picked an unlikely dance partner: Regan Smith, driving the No.78 Furniture Row Racing car. Smith was unlikely for several reasons. The team, based in Colorado instead of the almost-mandatory North Carolina, isn't nearly as well funded as Penske or Roush outfits, so it isn't as well known. Also, Smith drives a Chevrolet, not a Dodge; you might think Busch and Keselowski would team up, but they never did, nor was it discussed during the race. Read into that what you will. Bottom line, though: Smith, who won his first race in May, the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington, worked very well with Busch. In a long and frustrating race, they never argued in their radio communications, and it all should have turned out better than it did.

But it didn't, because of, you know, the Big One.

As with any race that starts in daylight and ends in the dark, the Coke Zero 400 was going to be a challenge for drivers and crew chiefs. You might be surprised how much a track can change after the sun goes down, and when a half-pound difference in air pressure in the right-front tire can decide whether a car runs up front or fades to the back of the pack, it's yet another difficult variable for teams to ponder.

Despite this being the rainy season in Florida, it was clear and warm for the race. For Busch and Addington, it started out as a love fest. "I've got a smile on my face because I think we're gonna have a great race," Busch said on the radio. "We've got smiles on our faces because we have you in the car," Addington responded.

Starting midpack, the philosophy was not to force anything early, stay in the lead group, keep out of trouble, and make a run for it late in the show. It was important to lead at least one lap, because that gives you an extra point in the standings. But other than that, the only lap that pays big when you're in front—in this case, more than $300,000—is the last one.


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