LONG POND — Kurt Busch had already set the track qualifying record once on Friday. It wasn’t enough to win the pole.
Yeah, it’s been that kind of a stretch for the guy.
Busch had briefly set a new all-time beast mark for a Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway, recording the fastest time in the second round of the circuit’s new qualifying procedure. But in the third and final round, it was Denny Hamlin who ultimately bested him by a microscopic two thousandths of a second to claim the pole.
Despite that initial disappointment, Busch is hoping to get his 2014 campaign back on track when he starts second in today’s Pocono 400.
“We haven’t been all that good this year,” Busch said. “Just have to thank … everybody who has been pushing us and keeping track of us. We haven’t done our job to the best of our ability, and this is a good turn for the better.”
Though he hasn’t won at the track since the August race in 2007, Busch will be making his 17th start in the top 10 out of 26 total races at Pocono.
Busch’s season has taken a sharp downturn after winning at Martinsville at the end of March. Accidents in three of his next four races kept him from finishing and engine problems ended his day early two weeks ago at Charlotte.
His 18th-place finish last week at Dover was his best since his victory, and the No. 41 team arrived at Pocono hoping to build off that bit of improvement. A few tweaks to the car’s setup this week didn’t hurt, either.
“We came here with a new approach to try and get our front end to settle into the racetrack a little better,” Busch said. “We’re glad we were able to apply something new to the car this weekend and see results right away. Just nice to see you’re going in the right direction.”
It was the best qualifying run for Busch all year as the veteran driver has worked to adapt to the new qualifying that has drivers advance through knockout rounds, with the field being pared down to 24 and then 12 before awarding the pole.
“We haven’t gotten into the final round much, but this was a final-round type of car,” Busch said. “We put ourselves in position for the pole, and came away just two thousandths shy, which is cool.
“The car didn’t feel that good, but that’s the compromise you have to make in this knockout qualifying. In the 15 years I’ve been doing this, you only had to do one lap that’s perfect. Now you have to run three that are pretty good.”
On top of the new format, Busch and the rest of the Cup field also had to adjust to the changes made to the tunnel turn at the track. Apart from some repaving, a curb was removed at the turn’s entrance.
Hamlin, who has had plenty of success at Pocono in the past, said “it’s so much different, you could almost rename the racetrack.”
“That curb was a race-killer if you hit it and damaged the splitter,” said Brad Keselowski, who will start third today.
“The front splitter on these cars, if you hit that, it can really end your day. So I thought it was a great change.”
Busch has had bigger changes to deal with this season as the former Cup champion joined Stewart-Haas Racing. One of the storylines for him in 2014 was working with first-year crew chief Daniel Knost.
Knost is just 35 and Busch has a reputation of being, shall we say, excitable on the radio during races.
“It’s been great to work with Daniel, to watch his growth and see him come up through all the different challenges,” Busch said. “I’ll never know all the things he’s been through, but I can see the progress he’s made.”
The praise did come with a caveat.
“He can be better,” Busch said. “He can delegate more work. Daniel likes to do everything himself. He has to rely on the talent of the guys around him that he’s positioned himself with. That’s the next step — allowing crew members to go another gear here in these summer months and advance.
“We all know we can work better, work harder and make this 41 car faster.”