HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – In most team sports, having home-field advantage can make a difference in the outcome of a game, and that typically occurs for at least half of each season in most sports. In NASCAR, however, while most competitors race at venues near their hometowns at one time or another, a driver will have usually no more than two “home games” each 36-race season.
Not so for Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) at Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350k at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. The Las Vegas native feels very much at home all up and down the western part of the country, where the series races no less than five times each year from Phoenix to Sonoma.
While he’ll be enjoying a home game of sorts this weekend, Busch is also hitting the road – namely the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma for Sunday’s 350-kilometer challenge of both right turns and lefts.
Before 2008, nobody even thought to mention Busch as a threat to win either of Sprint Cup’s annual road-course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. But that all changed shortly after his arrival at JGR at the start of 2008 as Busch dominated the road-course scene that year, leading 130 of the 202 road-course laps run and capturing victories at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Similar to NASCAR regulars like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who are known to be strong on the road courses, Busch quickly established himself in 2008 as a routine road-course contender and has been in the hunt on road courses ever since. Most recently, Busch led 29 laps while bringing home his second win at Watkins Glen in August 2013.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads to its annual stop in Northern California’s Wine Country, everyone knows Busch is capable of winning anywhere in his comfortable surroundings of his “home” out West, just like he did at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2009. They also know he’s always a threat to win on the “road” courses, as he is this weekend at Sonoma.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Describe what it’s like to race at Sonoma and what challenges you face there?
“Sonoma is a neat place. It’s a cool area to go to up in Wine Country. I’ve always enjoyed road-course racing. Even when I was in Legends cars, I would enjoy going up there during the days that I raced there. Now that I’m on the Sprint Cup tour, it’s cool to go there every June. I’ve won there before, years ago, but I haven’t been back to victory lane there since, so I would love to get back to my winning ways there and figure out what we’ve been missing there. It’s a fun racetrack. The cars get grouped a lot closer together there than at Watkins Glen, so braking there is a lot tougher getting into turn four, turn seven, and especially turn 11. There are some opportunities in those corners to pass people. Forward bite seems to have become an issue as you get going there during the run. And you need to make sure you keep the rear tires underneath you because it’s really easy to burn them babies off when you try and pass somebody because you go to pass somebody and hit the gas and all your rear tires want to do is spin and you can’t get alongside that guy. So, from that respect, Sonoma can be frustrating at times, as well. We just want to get in a position to win with our M&M’s Camry, then see how the strategy plays out.”
How intense have the road-course races become?
“I think, ever since double-file restarts came about, aggression at Sonoma has gone up a lot. You have these cautions that come late in the going and cautions breed cautions – especially on a road course and especially with double-file restarts. It just seems to be out of control there. You’re trying to take everything you can get and all the positions you can because it’s coming down to crunch time. It’s a place where, for me, it’s been fun to race. I’ve won there and I’ve also had some disappointing runs there and I’ve had some mistakes there – some wheel-hop issues and things. For me, it’s a place where you’re turning right and turning left. And being at a road course is kind of like an off weekend, so you try to enjoy it the best you can and hope we can stay on course and get a good finish with our M&M’s Crispy Camry.”
How challenging is it to race against road-course specialists who you might not race against on a regular basis?
“It’s different, for sure. There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do. The neat thing about road racing is just being able to have – it’s like – a vacation weekend. You just go out there and have fun and do the best you can and you’ll either do really well or you’ll do really badly and you just go on to the next one. We do have some testing for it and you try to pick up on it but, with respect to who you’re racing, you can expect to race a little bit of a different crowd. Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) have been a lot better at the road courses, so now you race against them. You race against Tony Stewart, and really my brother (Kurt Busch) and Clint (Bowyer), because they have been good there the last few years, as well. A lot of the guys who race well at both, you race against every week.”
What’s your favorite part of racing at Sonoma?
“The elevation changes can make it a lot of fun but, in the beginning, I was lost at Sonoma, to be honest. I raced Legends cars there and at other road courses years ago and learned the technique and stuff of shifting and braking and all that, and then got to the Cup cars and they’re so different. I was just lost. I give a lot of that credit to testing with Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) a lot of times and learning a lot from those guys when I was at Hendrick and working with them years ago. And, of course, more of that expertise goes to Max Papis, who was our test driver at Hendrick, and learning stuff from him and reading reports that he did and picking up on it, following guys like Boris Said and Robby Gordon, the guys who are good at it and are fast at it.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine