HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – One year ago this weekend, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff prospects for Kyle Busch looked less than ideal for the eventual 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), had just come off a last-place finish after an accident forced him out of the previous race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. Busch left Michigan in June without a win and in a deep hole with regard to his quest to crack the top-30 in the driver standings, as he sat 173 points behind the 30th-place driver.
After sitting out the first 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the season because of injury, Busch and the M&M’S team had 15 races to meet two requirements in order to make the 2015 Chase. He needed to have at least one victory, and also needed to make it into the top-30 in driver points.
Not about to give up, Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire team rolled up their sleeves and went to work on the next stop on the circuit, Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, site of Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350k.
Using the off weekend following Michigan as a point to refocus, the team turned around its season at Sonoma as Busch snuck past six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on a late-race restart to bring home an unlikely win, given that he was still recovering from his injuries and the shifting that is required on the road course at Sonoma. It started a remarkable streak of four wins in five weeks, including three in a row at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After starting this season winning three races in his 11 outings, Busch has hit a bit of a bad-luck streak over the last four races with various issues hampering his ability to compete for wins. However, much like one year ago, Busch comes out of Michigan with a DNF (did not finish) but looking to use Sonoma as a springboard to get back to his winning ways.
Last year’s victory on the 1.99-mile Sonoma circuit was just the latest of numerous road course wins for Busch, who has turned into a threat to win at each of the two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule. Before 2008, Busch was never mentioned as a threat to win at either Sonoma or 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.
Busch quickly established himself in 2008 as a routine road-course contender and has been in the hunt on road courses ever since. Prior to last year’s win at Sonoma, Busch led 29 laps en route 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, Busch will look to defend his Toyota/SaveMart 350k title. And just like one year ago, he’ll hope Sonoma is a starting point for another strong summer and the momentum leading into NASCAR’s playoffs this fall.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Do you feel like the Sonoma race was the springboard for your comeback and championship last year?
“That weekend was certainly a good start. To go out there and win the race after where we were after Michigan the previous week, it all gave us the confidence that we still had a shot to win the Chase. We thought getting the win would be the hardest part, but it was really not expected at Sonoma. My feet and legs were still recovering and there was a lot of shifting and it was hard on them. With 30 laps to go, it was hurting pretty bad but, when you realize you have a chance to win, it doesn’t hurt as bad. We’ve had times at Sonoma where we’ve been up front and haven’t been able to hold onto it and, other times like last year, Adam (Stevens, crew chief) had the right strategy and we were in the right place at the right time. We’ve had some bad luck recently, so we’re hoping we can get a good run with our M&M’S Camry at Sonoma and get back up going in the right direction.”
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 into 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. 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.”
Is road-course racing something that comes naturally to you, or is it something you had to work on?
“It’s definitely something you have to work on. With rule changes and tire changes, it’s something you work on every year. There’s always change that you have to work on to be competitive. When I was a kid back in Las Vegas in Legends cars, that’s where I was able to learn about shifting and turning left and turning right. I had the natural instincts on it and won a couple of championships in the winter series we had out there. We actually went to Sonoma back then and ran the national championship races two years in a row and finished third both times, so I had a little bit of experience on road courses as I came up through the ranks.”
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 several years, as well. A lot of the guys who race well at both, you race against every week.”
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