HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads for the sixth race in NASCAR’s top series at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, there’s some good news and bad news for two-time and defending Kentucky race winner Kyle Busch.
The good news? Busch won two of the first five races at the 1.5-mile oval, including the inaugural Sprint Cup race in 2011 and, most recently, last July. The bad news? The heavily worn racing surface and Kentucky layout Busch navigated to win last year’s race is gone and replaced by not only a newly repaved surface, but also a slight reconfiguration of turns one and two.
Even with those major changes facing him at Kentucky this weekend, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) is still optimistic about his chances at one of his best tracks statistically during Saturday night’s Quaker State 400. Busch got off to a bit of a head start last month as his was one of the teams taking part in a two-day tire test on the new surface.
As noted earlier, the Las Vegas native has quite the record at the racetrack that sits some 65 miles north and east of Louisville’s Churchill Downs, a legendary racing facility known for horsepower of an altogether different variety. Busch has notched victories at Kentucky Speedway in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – Sprint Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck. Add his 2003 ARCA series win at Kentucky and Busch has been victorious in four racing divisions and has made quite a Kentucky home of his own in the state’s second-most-famous victory lane.
In the inaugural Sprint Cup event at Kentucky in 2011, Busch proved his worth when he led six times for a race-high 125 laps to be the historic first winner in NASCAR’s top series in the state. He enters Saturday night’s race with a series-best average finish at Kentucky of 3.8. He also leads the series in several statistical categories after the five races contested there thus far in NASCAR’s top division, during which he netted four top-five finishes and five top-10 finishes.
Busch’s winning history at Kentucky started way back at the ripe age of 18, when he dominated the 2003 ARCA race while competing for Hendrick Motorsports. He led a race-high 91 laps en route to the victory.
He returned to the Bluegrass State the following year and found victory lane again, this time in his Xfinity Series debut at the 1.5-mile oval. In all, Busch has one win, six top-fives, and has led 511 laps in seven Xfinity Series starts there. He also won the 2011 and 2014 Truck Series races to give him five top-10 finishes and 310 laps led in five Truck Series starts at the speedway.
So as the Sprint Cup Series makes just its sixth appearance at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night, even despite the fact that he and the M&M’S team may have to start over at least to some degree with the unknown of the new surface, Busch has proven he’s a quick learner as he goes for yet another win in the Bluegrass State.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S 75th Anniversary Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
You tested at Kentucky back in June. What were your first impressions of the new surface there?
“It’s certainly everything we discussed, with the racetrack being changed. Turns one and two are slightly more banked and we can carry more speed through there. In turns three and four, not much changed down there but it’s a flatter corner and tends to be a little bit slicker. Entry to three tends to be the trickiest corner for me, probably, on the circuit, but I’ve made the most of my opportunities there before and have been able to win, so I’m hoping I can figure that out again and be better at that than some of the other guys.”
How big of a challenge do you have with turn one and two versus a completely different turns three and four at Kentucky?
“It’s going to be interesting. I think the biggest thing that I saw in the test is that the groove goes from being so wide coming out of turn four and down the front straightaway, it kind of narrows up getting into turn one and the racetrack width narrows up, not to mention the groove is probably only one car wide. Then, on the other end getting into turn three, the track kind of widens out down there and you have plenty of room, but again it narrows down and there’s only one groove. We tried our best to get it rubbered in during the test. It seemed in turns one and two, the rubber laid down well, but it was more of a challenge in turns three and four. We’ll see how it is this weekend.”
You faced a tough stretch recently with four bad finishes, but have followed it up with two top-10s the last two weeks. How do you balance your ability to keep moving forward with the challenge of Kentucky this weekend?
“We left Michigan with a DNF and headed to the test there in Kentucky, but Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys weren’t discouraged. We had run well, we just didn’t have any luck. There are a lot of unknowns at Kentucky, but we felt like we had a good test there and learned what we could. We came out of the off weekend and things certainly have been going in a better direction the last couple of weeks. We had no rear tires left at the end at Sonoma and dropped some spots, but that was a solid top-10 and felt like that helped us get into a better direction. Even with us losing the primary car at Daytona, we still had a really good car thanks to everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, and had another good day there. As for this weekend, there’s just a lot of unknowns going there with the repave and it’s essentially like going to a completely different venue. At the same time, our cars are fast with this 18 M&M’S team, we can run up front, and we can finish in the top-five in every race. We’ve just had some bad luck that has kept us from some other good finishes. Those finishes are frustrating, but I feel a bit better knowing that we have fast cars and are capable of finishing in the top-five every week.”
How does it feel to know you’ll always be the inaugural Sprint Cup winner at Kentucky for the rest of your career?
“I think it’s cool. You look at some of the new venues we’ve been to over the years and Jeff Gordon got to win a number of inaugural races, like the Brickyard, Fontana, and Kansas. He was always the guy who was known to figure out places the fastest, but we were able to be the ones to do that at Kentucky. There aren’t many opportunities these days to go to a new venue so, for us, being able to win the first race there was extra special, and we’ve really kept that going there by finishing in the top-10 in all the Sprint Cup races that have been run there. Would certainly like to keep our record going there this weekend with our M&M’S 75th Anniversary Camry.”
Is Kentucky a special place for you?
“I love Kentucky. It was special there in 2011, when we were able to win the first Cup race there, and it stayed that way during our win there last year. I look forward to going back every year. It’s a pretty challenging racetrack. It used to be a place that lends itself to different kinds of setups because it was so rough. Fast lap times at Kentucky come from momentum. The place is so round that there’s not a ton of banking compared to some other 1.5-milers. It’s all about how round the corners are and just being able to maintain corner speed and stay on the gas. We certainly think we have as good a shot as any to get back to victory lane there with our M&M’S Camry. It’s a place we get excited about, for sure.”
- Charlie Brim
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