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Odd couple steers to title

Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

 

  2004 Nextel Cup points champion Kurt Busch (left) shares a hug with crew chief Jimmy Fennig following the season-ending Ford 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The personalities of the two men complement each other: Busch is young and fiery; Fennig is a veteran who stresses calm and patience. Photo by Sherryl Creekmore/NASCA

2004 Nextel Cup points champion Kurt Busch (left) shares a hug with crew chief Jimmy Fennig following the season-ending Ford 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The personalities of the two men complement each other: Busch is young and fiery; Fennig is a veteran who stresses calm and patience.

Photo by Sherryl Creekmore/NASCA

"Listen Kurt, calm down. Concentrate. Just relax, and we'll get it right."

Kurt Busch and Jimmy Fennig couldn't be more opposite. Busch, 26, still has streaks of raw emotion and immaturity. Fennig is the seasoned veteran who's seen it all.

They yell at each other on the radio and seem to spend most of their working relationship like a rebellious son and a heavy-handed father. But they made it work, and together they brought Jack Roush his second consecutive Nextel Cup Series championship.

"Kurt has been doing an awesome job on these last 10 races," Fennig said after his driver clinched the series championship with a fifth-place finish at last Sunday's Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. "We ended up spinning out a couple times. He kept his cool, came back and we got a nice top-five finish."

After spending more than 20 years in the business, many believe a championship would provide Fennig a proper springboard into an easier job at Roush Racing, maybe even into retirement.

He squashed those rumors Sunday.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said.

Roush and Busch are quick to say the championship was the result of Fennig's work. He not only helped prepare a Ford Taurus that was practically bullet proof in the 10-race Chase for the Championship, he had a way of keeping Busch's youthful exuberance under control.

"He's built the team and he's helped Kurt advance," Roush said "I've had many questions. Kurt has had some lumps and bumps in his young career here. Kurt is an incredible quick study. Once he understands how something works, he never forgets it and he won't put it aside."

Said Busch, "This is Jimmy Fennig's championship."

The Chase turned into a demolition derby. Busch blew an engine at Atlanta and finished 42nd. For the other nine competitors, however, it was even worse with multiple failures and crashes.

There were defining moments in Busch's eight-point victory over Jimmie Johnson and 16-point margin over Jeff Gordon. Like surviving a wild spin in the middle of traffic at the Talladega Superspeedway and not crashing. And surviving a similar spin at the Kansas Speedway and not hitting anything. And having a wheel fall off in Sunday's season-finale at Homestead at the opening to pit road.

"The tire, it broke and the first reaction you do is you go to the tire changer and see if the holes were oblong," Fennig said. "We brought the piece up on the pit box and looked at it and they weren't oblong. We're trying to fix the problem or find the problem, but the wheel was actually tight. I was just by the car right now and everything was still tight after the race, so we'll take it back to the shop on Monday and look at it and see what we can find."

Other than Atlanta, Busch was a model of consistency. He had one victory, six top-five finishes and nine top 10s.

"I had one smooth race, I believe, and that was New Hampshire. And maybe Martinsville a little bit, where we finished fifth," Busch said. "But we wanted to go to each of the racetracks and to attack the racetrack for a win and nothing less. One racetrack after the next. Five hundred miles one week, 400 the next."

Fennig's experience and demeanor was invaluable, especially when Busch entered the final race with four other drivers within reach of the championship.

"I kind of had meetings every Sunday with the crew guys and the pit-crew guys, and we go over what needs to be done, and we kind of just say, 'Do like we've been doing to get us to this point,' " Fennig said. "I kind of joke around a little bit, keep them relaxed."

Just like he does with his driver.



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