Kurt Busch saves fuel, wastes champagne, wins Pocono

Kurt Busch celebrates with his team after winning Monday’s Sprint Cup series auto race at Pocono Raceway.
Kurt Busch celebrates with his team after winning Monday’s Sprint Cup series auto race at Pocono Raceway. AP

After the champagne and Monster energy drinks had been sprayed at victory lane on Monday afternoon, Kurt Busch posed for a picture with interim crew chief Johnny Klausmeier.

The two left room between them where they later planned to superimpose an image of Tony Gibson, who was suspended for the Axalta 400 because of a lugnut infraction in Charlotte.

If Busch and Klausmeier are as adept at Photoshop as they are at preserving fuel, it will be a picture perfect end to what had been a wet weekend at Pocono Raceway.

The veteran Busch used creative fuel-saving techniques that he chose not to expand on to claim the checkered flag in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski to win a race that was postponed a day due to rain and fog.

Busch didn’t coast to the finish line. It only felt like that for the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet, who was told by Klausmeier during his final pit stop that he was in danger of running out of gas with two laps left at the 2.5-mile track known as the Tricky Triangle.

“Johnny Klausmeier called a perfect race to gamble on the fuel a little bit, but he also gave me the ball,” Busch said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, we’re two laps shy. Go get it for us.’ 

Busch, 37, passed Earnhardt and was able to keep rookie Chase Elliott at bay during a critical restart with 32 laps left. The question remaining the rest of the race wasn’t whether Busch would win it, but whether he’d finish it.

From the FS1 broadcast booth, former driver Jeff Gordon said he could tell by the sound his car was making that Busch was shutting down his engine in the first and third turns, then revving it up again on the long straightaways.

“We can’t give all our secrets (away),” Klausmeier said afterward.

“Jeff Gordon is pretty smart,” Busch added. “He’s a champion driver. He knows how to save fuel.”

So does Busch, whose victory was his first of the season and 28th of his career, tying him with Hall-of-Famer Rex White for 25th on NASCAR’s all-time list.

But despite that experience, Klausmeier couldn’t help but sweat out the final few laps as Busch crept closer to “E” on the fuel gauge.

“I was definitely nervous. You know how the deal goes. You can be hero or zero really quick,” Klausmeier said. “I knew once we took the white flag we would be in good shape, and once we got to that milestone I felt pretty confident in it.”

Earnhardt blamed himself for a sloppy restart when he got loose after a run by Elliott, allowing Busch to slip into the lead. Earnhardt, who wished he’d been more aggressive, remained winless while collecting his fourth runner-up finish of the season.

Earnhardt knew Busch’s Stewart-Haas team was running low on fuel. And Earnhardt suspects Gibson played a pivotal role in Busch’s late-race strategy, even watching from parts unknown.

“Them guys find unique ways to be able to communicate and be involved and be on top of everything with the car and (what) the team is doing with the car, even though he’s not there to see it with his own eyes,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt said a six-week suspension for a crew chief “would be a little worrisome, but one race is not a big deal.”

But it was a big deal for Klausmeier, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Maryland-Baltimore County and is the former lead engineer for Danica Patrick.

Klausmeier, 35, still looked nervous as he sat at a dais alongside Busch 40 minutes after the race.

But Busch, the 2004 series champ who entered the weekend second in the points standings, said he never felt nervous with Klausmeier on the other end of the headset.

“I don’t know what it was. His voice was way more calming than Gibson,” Busch said. “When you have an engineer calculating your fuel, I mean it’s a calculator. I know Gibson can do it just the same.

“But when you have a new guy or somebody different and you’re not at full strength, there’s something that happens to everybody on the team. Everybody pulls harder. Everybody digs in a little deeper. And not having Tony Gibson here today, I know everybody gave that much more.”

Gibson might not have been there in person. But he’ll soon be showing up in a photoshopped picture wedged between a smiling Busch and a wide-eyed, fill-in crew chief.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson