"I've never looked at it with that much data in front of me before, but it only works to reinforce my belief of just how important it is to end your season on a high note," said Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch, fresh off an impressive runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson in last Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. "As much as we race and because there's so little time off during the season, the weeks tend to roll on from one track's schedule right into the next race along the tour.
"The winner celebrates on Sunday night, but the clock rolls back almost immediately because you're already busy preparing for the next race that's only a couple of days away," said Busch, the 2004 series champion who'll be starting his 108th race as the driver of Penske Racing's No. 2 Dodge in Sunday's 400-mile battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "So when you look at that period in between the closing of one season till the opening of the next, that's a long time to think about it.
"Your last race out is the one that's freshest on your mind and you certainly hope it's memorable for all the right reasons," Busch continued. "Closing out your season with a competitive weekend at Homestead is just that important.
"If you come out of there with great results, it gives all the team members, the sponsors, the media - everyone out there - a super calling card to remember you by. It works to instill optimism and grow the level of confidence through all those cold and dreary winter days.
"What our Miller Lite Dodge Team needs at Homestead is a carbon copy of the race weekend that we had at Phoenix," said Busch. "With the kind of season that we've had overall, it would be the greatest thing that could possibly happen to us right now.
"At Phoenix, we were competitive from the time we unloaded on Friday morning till we took the checkered flag in second-place behind the 48 car (Johnson) there on Sunday night," said Busch of his third-place start and runner-up finish. "It was the most competitive start-to-finish weekend that our team has enjoyed the entire season.
"That's our goal for this weekend; to finish the season off with another great effort like that," Busch concluded. "We definitely hope to end our year with another strong performance."
The 1.5-mile Homestead track is certainly a place where Busch should be able to carry out his plans. In his seven career Cup starts there, he has posted one win, three top-five finishes and two poles. He scored his first "double-dip" race weekend by taking both the pole position and the race win in the 2002 season finale at Homestead.
In one of the most dramatic races in NASCAR history, Busch started from the pole and finished fifth at Homestead on Nov. 21, 2004. It was enough to allow Busch to clinch the first "Chase format" title by a mere eight points over Johnson. He survived a near catastrophic situation when he lost the right front wheel while running second on Lap 94. He just missed hitting the barrier at the pit road opening and the team was able to bounce back and finish fifth.
Busch started fifth and finished second in last year's Ford 400.
Friday's practice from 11:30 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. kicks off this weekend's action at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Qualifying to establish the starting grid for Sunday's battle is set for Friday at 3:10 p.m. Saturday's first practice is scheduled from 1:30 p.m. till 2:15 p.m. and the final "happy hour" practice session is scheduled from 2:50 p.m. till 3:50 p.m. Sunday's Ford 400 (400 miles, 267 laps) has a scheduled 3:45 p.m. EST starting time here on this 1.5-mile speed plant located at the north end of the Florida Keys. ABC-TV and MRN Radio will provide live coverage of all the action.
--Kurt, Pat and crew are testing their "PRS-565" Miller Lite Dodge today (Tuesday, 11/11) at the "Little Rock," the new half-mile track just outside the backstretch of the one-mile oval at Rockingham Raceway Park. "We've been saying that we're already focusing on getting our total program ready for '09 and this is an example of our commitment to doing that," Pat said. "We get back to the short tracks only five races into the season next year so it's never too early to be working on that end of the deal. This also gives us the opportunity to work with new components and try stuff out."
--Kurt has received many compliments for how he handled the post-race situation at Phoenix last Sunday night after finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson. "Like I told them, I've had as good of seat as anyone to watch what has evolved with Jimmie, Chad and the entire No. 48 team," Kurt said on Monday night. "It is indeed something exceptional. I look back now and see how extra special it was to win the championship in 2004. Jimmie's team was on an upward spiral back then. They really hit their game in 2006. They won the title when we were running the old downforce-style cars. They came back last season during the transitional year of running both the old cars and the COT models and were equally strong with each. This was the first season racing the COT cars exclusively and they're peaking with it. It's an incredible run and they certainly have my respect for what they've accomplished."
--"Gold star for Cesar!" - When "first-string" tire specialist Dave "Mule" Nichols couldn't make the trip out for the Phoenix race last weekend, Pat and crew wound up calling on Cesar Bustos to fill in with the tire duties. Wait just a minute...Cesar is known as the "paint guru" back in the Penske Racing body shop (remember the beautiful special gold car Kurt raced in the Shootout last year?)...what was he doing on tire detail? "Hey, I'm a team player and through the years I've done a little bit of everything with race teams," said Cesar, a Salinas, Calif., native. "Mule couldn't make the trip. Corey Russell is our backup tire guy and he was getting married last weekend. I was third in line, I guess you could say. I did tires about 15 years ago working with late model teams and I was the tire specialist for Ron Hornaday's Busch team six or seven years ago. We only had like six sets of tires to work with back then, so we really had our hands full. Last weekend was a lot of fun and I enjoyed working with Kurt and the guys. They're a close-knit bunch and helped me get all the tires ready there on Sunday morning before the race. I enjoyed the trip out to Phoenix, but I told Mule it was all his job and I had renewed respect for what he does out there every week." "That's pretty cool when you can get your paint guy out of the body shop to come and do your tires," Kurt said. "Cesar did a great job. I had to seek him out after the race and tell him personally how much we appreciated it. He gets a gold star for the super job he did with the tires out there."
--Kurt, Pat and crew will be racing their "PRS-579" Miller Lite Dodge this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The car debuted at Michigan on Aug. 17, where Kurt started 13th and finished 36th. It was raced again at Kansas on Sept. 28, where Kurt started 31st and finished 30th. The third time proved to be the charm as Kurt drove this car to a competitive sixth-place finish on Oct. 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "Homestead is another one of the intermediate mile-and-a-half tracks and we've been really trying to bump up that part of our overall program during these last few races," Kurt said. "We had the great runs at Charlotte (finished third) and at Atlanta (sixth) before having the engine problems at Texas. We're looking to close out the season with another competitive race a