HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Just eight weeks ago Kyle Busch walked out of Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn wondering what he needed to do to catch a break. In a race delayed by rain several times, Busch spun and made hard contact with the outside SAFER barrier on the frontstretch after a rain shower fell just as he was passing another car on the inside. While the No. 18 team worked feverishly to make repairs, the rain eventually cut the race well short of its full distance and Busch left the Irish Hills with a 43rd-place finish.
However, in the seven races over a span of nine weeks since Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), and his entire team have been “Outrageously Dependable”, much like the motto of their primary sponsor this week.
After sitting out the first 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season because of injury, Busch and the Interstate Batteries team had 15 races to meet two requirements in order to make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Busch needed to have at last one victory, but also needed to make it into the top-30 in driver points. Busch left Michigan in June with no wins and a deep hole in his quest to crack the top-30 as he sat 173 points behind the 30th-place driver.
But instead of giving up, Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire team rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Using the off-weekend following Michigan as a point to refocus, the team turned around their season in late-June by winning at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. The win started a streak of four wins in just five weeks, included three wins in-a-row starting at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, and continuing on at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The team nearly won its fourth race in-a-row two weeks ago at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway before the gas tank ran dry while leading on the final lap. The team marched on to the road course at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International last week, bringing home a runner-up finish that signified a victory of its own, as Busch had now made it within the top-30 in the driver standings with just four races remaining in NASCAR’s regular season.
In just seven races, Busch has made up a whopping 179 points on 30th-place. Always looking for more, Busch hopes to put even more distance on the 30th-place mark with his green-and-white-striped Interstate Batteries Toyota heads back to the Irish Hills for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Pure Michigan 400.
Busch won the Pure Michigan 400 in August 2011, his first Sprint Cup triumph at the 2-mile oval. However, the track was repaved prior to the 2012 season and, while he scored a solid fourth-place finish on the surface in June 2013, he has had four finishes of 30th or worse in the other five races contested on the fresh pavement. This weekend, Busch looks to overcome that recent string of bad luck at Michigan as NASCAR brings back the high drag package similar to one used in his win three races ago at Indianapolis.
So, as Busch and the Interstate Batteries team head back to Michigan eight weeks later, things are looking much brighter than the last trip to the Irish Hills as his team looks to keep up its relentless streak with their fifth win and an even more solid footing within the Chase grid.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Is it satisfying knowing that you are currently top-30 in the point standings heading back to Michigan, where you had quite the deficit on 30th when you left there in June?
“It is, but we also have to keep focused and keep running strong these next several races to solidify our spot in the top-30. I can tell you one thing, I’m really proud of Adam Stevens and all the guys on this Interstate Batteries team. I’m also proud of everyone back at JGR working on these cars and proud of everyone at Toyota and TRD for all their hard work. It’s really paying off right now. We are bringing good cars to the track every week and when you do that, good things are going to happen. I’m hoping we can keep doing that for the next 14 weeks and get ourselves solidly in the top-30 and see what we can do here at the end of the season.”
Most drivers really seem to enjoy racing at Michigan International Speedway. Why is that?
“It’s wide-open racing and you can run from top to bottom. The biggest thing used to be to find grip there. Before, you had grip for maybe five laps and then you’d just be out to lunch. But now, the tire wear is all out the window and the racetrack is starting to wear in but still really fast with a lot of grip. And the wide racetrack is good. That’s what makes Michigan so exciting and so fun.”
Have you raced harder knowing you need to get into the top-30 in points along with the race wins?
“I just think that we’re really solid right now all the way around. I think everything is just really clicking for the 18 Interstate Batteries team. We won one and we weren’t necessarily satisfied with that so we went to Kentucky, a place that’s really good for me and we won again. We went to a place like Loudon (N.H.) where I finished second in three of the last four races there and we won there this time. Then we backed it up at Indy where I finished second I think two of the last three years. I’ve had some really good runs at these places, we just haven’t been able to close the deal and finally closing the deal it just all came together. We’ll keep unloading each weekend and working on our car, but it certainly makes it easier and more fun with the caliber of cars we are bringing to the track right now.”
Has there ever been a point in your career where things have gone this good for you?
“I’ve had plenty of times where they’ve all gone in the wrong direction so this is a sweet change from that and sometimes it happens for you and you’re not exactly sure why. Man, if you look back at the past few years especially through the summer months we couldn’t hit anything right – last year especially. I think I finished outside the top-30 in five races in a row. It’s like this year, had had four out of five wins. You just take it when you can get it. Like my dad told me this week, just ride it as long as you can. It’s something right – just keep doing what you’re doing and hopefully it will all work out.”
What have you witnessed as the biggest change with Joe Gibbs Racing this season?
“I think it’s a lot of things really, to be honest with you. I think it’s the new aero package that we have this year on everybody’s car, but it benefited us at the Toyota camp a little bit more. I think our engine shop has definitely done a good job over the off-season adapting to this new engine change and it’s just a matter of everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, the engineering group and everything coming up with some fresh ideas over the off-season to try. We came out of the box, I wasn’t there, but we came out of the box strong. They went to Vegas and Denny (Hamlin) ran in the top-five and they went to California and I think Matt (Kenseth) would have won if it wasn’t for the rear end axle breaking on pit road. Everybody just seemed to be really working well this year and having some good, solid runs even before I got back. Since I’ve gotten back in the race car at Charlotte in May it just definitely seemed like that next level has kind of taken off for us at Joe Gibbs Racing. We’ve really been able to do that and we’ve capitalized on some good days. We had some bad days, but we’ve definitely capitalized on some of those good days in winning four races. It’s just a matter now of hoping to continue this wave, this ride all the way through the next 14 weeks. Certainly, I’ve had plenty of years in my career where we’ve made it to Chase and everything has sort of hit a brick wall. Hopefully we don’t have that and JGR continues to power through and really look strong through the post season.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine