HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – Kyle Busch remembers the day well. It was Aug. 21, 2011, and with just four top-10 finishes in 13 previous starts in his career at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, he found himself outdueling now six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for the win in a late-race shootout at the 2-mile oval.
But, during the offseason that followed, the heavily worn Michigan racing surface was repaved because of the toll harsh Upper Midwest winters wreaked, and that repave added a tremendous amount of grip that wears less on tires. In the six races since, Busch has four finishes outside the top-30, but also one top-five in June 2013.
During this weekend’s semiannual stopover in the Irish Hills for Sunday’s Sprint Cup FireKeepers Casino 400, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Red, White, and Blue Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) looks to benefit from the same approach he used the last two seasons on the similarly repaved Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
Busch and his M&M’S team started from a blank sheet of paper and raced strongly at times at Kansas, starting with the 2014 spring race there. Anyone who has ever followed Busch knows he has never been into moral victories. However, the team overcame its past issues and posted back-to-back top-five finishes in October 2014 and the fall race of 2015, as Busch missed the spring 2015 race due to injury. But in his most recent trip to Kansas last month, Busch turned his moral victory from two years prior into an actual victory, the first of his Sprint Cup career at the 1.5-mile oval.
As the M&M’S Red, White, and Blue team struggled similarly on Michigan’s now-smooth asphalt surface the last three seasons, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens will look to approach this weekend much like the No. 18 team did the last two seasons at Kansas. On newer surfaces, grip level is greatly increased, which makes the speeds faster than usual. But, the racing groove remains narrower than usual as the track continues to take Goodyear tire rubber more quickly. Eventually, the groove will widen and competitors will have more options for three- and four-wide racing. That could happen this weekend as another rough Michigan winter has had its way with the repaved surface. In the meantime, sound tire and fuel strategy will be the keys to making sure this trip to the Automobile State is a successful one.
Like he did Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway, Busch will again sport a special Red, White and Blue M&M’S Camry promoting M&M’S partnership with Operation Gratitude and Walmart. For a limited time, fans can buy the Red, White and Blue M&M’S exclusively at Walmart. M&M’S candies were created 75 years ago as rations for our troops. During this summer’s promotion, for every bag purchased by a consumer, one bag will be sent to American troops abroad. Fans can also show their support on social media with #CelebrateWithM. More can be learned about the program at www.myconfectioncorner.com.
So, as Busch and the M&M’s Red, White, and Blue team head to the Upper Midwest this weekend, they hope to benefit from the same approach they used on other repaves to try to get a grip on the 2-mile Michigan oval. The ultimate goal will be a second career Sprint Cup victory for Busch in the Irish Hills of Michigan.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Red, White, and Blue Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Does taking the same approach you have at Kansas also benefit you at a place like Michigan?
“Our M&M’S guys have come a long way at Kansas, that’s for sure. To get a win there was a really big deal for our team. I give my guys a lot of credit for working hard to find something I was more comfortable with there. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) has shown how well we’ve worked together, and that he’s been a really quick study, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for me in Michigan this weekend. I’m hoping Michigan will be at least a little bit more worn in than when we were there last fall. We are working on improving as an organization not only on the resurfaced tracks, but overall in general. Everyone is working their guts out to get our stuff better. I’m in the shop each week and you see how hard everyone is working. I do appreciate it. We will have some changes to the cars at Michigan and Kentucky, so I’m looking forward to getting out there in practice and seeing what we can learn with our M&M’S Red, White, and Blue Camry.”
Most drivers really seem to enjoy racing at Michigan International Speedway. Why is that?
“Regardless of new pavement or not, it’s wide-open racing, and you can run from top to bottom more and more every race there as the groove widens out. The biggest thing used to be to find grip there. But with the new surface, there is a ton of grip now. 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 very fast. And the wide racetrack is good. That’s what makes Michigan so exciting and so fun. That’s the biggest deal about it.”
Do you expect the track surface to be worn in a little bit more this year?
“I expect it to be fast, still. With a newer surface, there’s always a lot of grip and we need more than a couple of years to break it in. I would still expect it to be very fast his weekend. But if you’re just a little bit loose there, now you’re nervous that just any little bit of getting outside the groove or having a little bit too much yaw will lead to a wreck. It was really intense last year in our tests and in the races there. You are hauling there now, for sure, and we know that corner speeds are up overall this year at other places.”
Father’s Day is next weekend during the off-week. How instrumental was your father in your racing career and who else helped you along the way to get you to where you are today?
“Obviously, my father – he’s probably number one. He and my mom just taking all of their resources and money and everything to help Kurt (Busch) and I get farther along in our careers in Las Vegas through Dwarf cars, Legends cars, Modifieds, whatever it was. Modifieds was about as far as we could go as a family – that was all we could afford. Then, past that was Jerry Spilsbury – he used to own an air conditioning company back in Las Vegas and he had a Late Model team out at the speedway the year before I ran. It was a one-car team and then, the year I ran, we actually became a three-car team. So it was Jerry himself, and then another guy named Billy Newman, and then myself who raced those cars that year. I think I finished third in the championship. I missed the first two races of the year because I wasn’t 16, yet. My birthday wasn’t until May. And then I had to miss another race when I ran out of gas in Chicago in the Camping World Truck Series race that day and we tried to fly back, but we couldn’t get out because of the weather in Chicago, so we couldn’t make that race that night. So I missed three and still finished third in points. I think Billy was second. We had a good year that year, but Jerry spent a lot of money, employed my father and just allowed me to succeed in winning 10 of 15 Late Model races that year – we finished second in three, third once and broke a rear-end gear in the other one while leading. We were plenty fast and, through racing that car that year, I think a lot of people took notice that Kurt Busch’s little brother back in Vegas was pretty good, and that’s all history, now.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine