The Hot Pass: Busch brothers find way up front
It was a dream scenario, the two hometown Busch brothers starting 1-2 in Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
And while things shook out that way in qualifying Friday, Las Vegas natives will have to wait another year as younger brother Kyle, who claimed the pole, will have to drop to the rear of the field after switching engines earlier in the day.
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will start from the rear of the field with four other TRD-powered Camrys (Nos. 00, 47, 82, 83) which suffered similar engine issues to last week's component problem in California.
"I wish we were starting up front so maybe we could get five bonus points early, but unfortunately that's not the case," said Busch, who won his fifth career pole with a track record breaking lap of 185.995 mph. "We'll have to battle on through there and pass everybody if we can and get there eventually during the day. The big check comes after the leader of the last lap, not the first lap."
Kurt Busch will maintain the second-qualifying position, but after Kyle Busch drops to the back the inside line with third-place starter Jimmie Johnson will move up for the green flag.
Regardless of semantics, it's the first time two brothers have qualified on the front row for a race since Rusty and Kenny Wallace at Martinsville Speedway in 2000. It's an honor not lost on Kurt Busch — particularly in his native Las Vegas.
"This is our hometown," Busch said. "Kyle and I grew up watching this place being built, grew up watching races here. It's definitely just as prestigious for the Busch brothers here in Vegas as it would be for Tony (Stewart) in Indy for sure."
For Busch the elder, who won the first Chase for the Cup championship in 2004, the transition from Roush Fenway Racing to Penske Racing has not been as smooth as planned. In the three years since switching teams, he has only added four wins to his career total (he had 14 in six years at Roush). Also, Busch has qualified just once for the Chase since joining Penske and finished 18th in points last season, the worse result since his rookie year.
Without testing this winter, Busch had plenty of time to reflect on 2008. In a season where he won just one event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his brother Kyle was smoking the competition by scoring a career high eight races. Shrubby needs just six victories to catch his older brother in the win column. Certainly, sibling rivalry adds to the complexity of Kurt Busch's struggles.
So in addition to assessing his own abilities, he evaluated everything including "handling, down force, horsepower, pit crew, communication between the race track guys and the guys back at the shop and the shock department with shock rubbers."
The effort has paid off. Busch's qualifying has improved dramatically this season with an average starting position of 6.3 in the first three races. The last time Busch sat on the front row was in Dover last June. His finishes of 10th and fifth at Daytona and California, respectively, currently have Busch sitting third in the point standings.
While it's still quite early in the season, momentum exists for the No. 2 Penske Dodge.