Kurt Busch Retroactive

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), is one of many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers who will be turning back time with a commemorative paint scheme for the 66th annual Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway as part of the track’s “The Tradition Returns” weekend.

The colors on Busch’s No. 41 Chevy are a throwback to when SHR was Haas CNC Racing, what the organization was known as before three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart joined Gene Haas, the founder of Haas Automation, the largest computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tool builder in the Western World, as a co-owner.

The paint scheme mimics the first for Haas Automation in Sprint Cup competition in 2002. Driver Jack Sprague was behind the wheel at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, where the company’s name and red “H” logos adorned the hood and quarter panels of the No. 60 Chevrolet.

While the sponsor’s first outing was lackluster, ending early with a 35th-place finish, it didn’t keep the team or the sponsor from being a regular competitor on the Sprint Cup circuit. Fast forward to 2015 and there’s no doubt sponsor Haas Automation and the team then known Haas-CNC Racing have come a long way since that first Kansas outing.

Since then, SHR has gone on to record 29 Sprint Cup points-paying wins, a pair of Sprint Cup championships and a Sprint All-Star race win. And, just as it did in 2002, Haas’ company, Haas Automation, will serve as a primary sponsor for driver Busch and the No. 41 Chevrolet during Sunday night’s Southern 500.

While Haas and everyone at Haas Automation will enjoy throwing back to the paint scheme that started it all this weekend, Busch will undoubtedly also throw back, but to a different memory – the one that got away.

It was March 16, 2003, and Busch was making just his fifth Sprint Cup start at Darlington. He qualified sixth but had to start from the back after the team changed an engine before the race. Busch showed a patient, steady pace as he progressed through the field during the race. His first opportunity to take the lead didn’t come until the last round of pit stops. Sitting in third place, he watched drivers Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon battle for the lead, closing in on them all the while.

“They were racing each other so hard going into turn two that it slowed them up and they lost all of their momentum,” Busch said of the battle for the lead. “I didn’t even hesitate. I kept my foot in the throttle, went for the lead and got it going into turn three.”

Busch officially took the lead on lap 270 with only 24 laps remaining. A fast car allowed him to build a lead of three seconds. He was poised to run to the finish as the leader until a hard-charging Ricky Craven started tracking down Busch as the laps wound down. Complicating the situation for Busch was the loss of power steering on his car. As the race counted down to two laps to go, Busch and Craven started battling hard for the lead with the top spot being exchanged all the way to the white flag, signaling the final lap.

“We were taking the white flag and he realized I was really slow in three and four and decided not to pass me until we were going through three and four coming to the checkered flag,” Busch said. “I had two options, and that was to either hold the car as low as I could to block him, or ride the high line to try to keep my momentum up off the top. I didn’t make a quick enough decision, so I ended up driving the middle lane because I just couldn’t hold my car low with the power steering gone.

“I stayed in the gas off four and again, without the power steering, I was late to pull the car straight, which is when I slammed against him, which probably looked like I was trying to hold him back. It put us in a deadlock all the way to the finish line. I thought I was ahead of him but, as we were grinding, scrubbing speed and just blistering the sides off each other’s cars, there was a moment when his car shifted ahead of mine.”

To this day, the finish shares the top spot on NASCAR’s list of closest finishes in the sport’s history. Although Busch settled for second place, he doesn’t hesitate to refer to it as one of his greatest races. It’s a racing memory for the ages at a track that, appropriately enough, has been on the NASCAR circuit longer than any other.

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Speedway Digest Staff

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