Kurt Busch takes the pole at New Hampshire

Published 1:55 am Saturday, July 21, 2018

By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Kurt Busch is set to crank up contract talks with Stewart Haas-Racing.

With his deal expiring at the end of the season, the 2004 NASCAR Cup champion is on the hunt for a new agreement that would keep him in the SHR fold and with Monster Energy again on board as a primary sponsor.

“I don’t know many drivers that have a primary sponsor with them,” Busch said. “Monster Energy has been very loyal to me. That’s what they’ve told me. It’s just a matter of when is the time to start talking contract. Last year, it went long just because I felt I deserved more.”

Busch didn’t sign a contract for this season until last December — though it seemed a formality he would re-sign, his status was in limbo once SHR declined a contract option in August.

The 39-year old Busch is in his fifth full season with SHR and has five of his career 29 wins with the team.

“There’s a lot of things that move, so we’ll see how it all comes together,” Busch said.

Busch has crafted a reputation as one of the best wheelmen in the game, and he added to it Friday when he turned a lap of 133.591 mph in the No. 41 Ford to win the pole for the NASCAR race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Busch, who won his third pole of the season, was the only one of the four SHR drivers to reach the final round of qualifying. He needs the boost from starting out front — Busch hasn’t won a race since the 2017 Daytona 500 and has just three top-five finishes this season.

Busch is far from the only series champion who has failed to win a race this season. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski are also looking for their first wins (so is Matt Kenseth in limited action) as this season has turned into the year of the Big Three.

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have 14 of this season’s 19 victories. Harvick and Busch each have five, Truex has four and the 16-spot playoff field is set to have more drivers qualify on points than through the automatic berths that come with a win.

Denny Hamlin, who won this race last season, is also looking for his first victory of 2018 and said his No. 11 Toyota is capable of joining the Big Three on a similar run.

“I don’t think we’ve been at that level to even be talked about at this point,” Hamlin said. “I think we’ve got to get better in a lot of different aspects. It’s agitating knowing that we’re capable of doing that if we just put everything together. But until we do it, they deserve all the press they’ve gotten.”

Truex, who won last week at Kentucky, will start second in Sunday’s race and Kyle Busch third. Harvick starts 14th.

Truex is winless in 24 career Cup starts at New Hampshire and posted a career-best third-place finish in the July 2007 and 2017 races. Truex would reach a career milestone with a win — he’s never won Cup races in consecutive weeks.

“He’s been fairly unlucky to not have won yet so far, but eventually that turns around,” Hamlin said.

And if Truex does snag that lobster Sunday in victory lane, it’ll be a win to savor.

“It’s one I want so bad. Winning here would be for me like winning at Daytona,” Truex said.

Toyotas and Fords took eight of the top-10 qualifying spots Friday. But Hendrick Motorsports, winless on the season, had an encouraging qualifying effort with their Chevrolets: Alex Bowman was eighth, Chase Elliott 10th and William Byron 11th.

Chevy’s 18-race winless streak dating Austin Dillon’s win in the season-opener at Daytona is the second-longest skid for the manufacturer since modern era began in 1972. The longest was 31 races from the 1981 to 1982 seasons.

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