HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – It was only the first race of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but reigning series champion Kyle Busch and his M&M’S team began their title defense with a solid effort in the Chase opener last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
Busch drove his signature No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry to an eighth-place finish at Chicagoland after leading 21 laps around the 1.5-mile oval. The effort placed the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) pilot third in the Chase standings with a healthy 19-point buffer over 13th-place Austin Dillon. The 16-driver Chase field gets whittled down to 12 drivers after the third Chase race Oct. 2 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Only those with a win or among the top-12 in points get to continue their championship pursuit.
The kind of front-running consistency Busch has displayed throughout his 12-year Sprint Cup career serves him well in the Chase, where strong runs can help him advance through the initial rounds of the playoff-type format. But winning is the ultimate way to advance, and as the series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for the second race of the Chase on Sunday with the New England 300, Busch is well positioned to punch his ticket to the Round of 12.
Busch won at New Hampshire last July to collect his second Sprint Cup win at the 1.058-mile oval. His first victory came in just his second start there in his first full season at NASCAR’s top level in 2005. In 23 career Sprint Cup starts at New Hampshire, Busch has eight top-fives and 12 top-10s. But more indicative of his prowess at the flat, paperclip-shaped track are his recent runs, where Busch and the M&M’s team have four top-twos dating back to July 2013 and have finished lower than eighth only once since 2012.
Even outside of Sprint Cup, Busch has proven to be rock solid in the Granite State. He has five NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at New Hampshire, along with three poles and eight top-fives in 11 career starts. And in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Busch has three wins, two poles and six top-10s in eight career starts.
While it’s “so far, so good” to start this year’s Chase, things could turn into “so far, wicked good” with another strong run at New Hampshire.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Do you feel like you’re in a stronger position this year?
“Yes, I do actually. I feel maybe a little bit better, but I also feel our biggest threat is within our own house, so with the Toyota guys all being very strong right now – with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Furniture Row (Racing) – we’ve had a lot of good success this year. We’ve won a lot of races, yet we’re all going to be going there and competing against each other. And I think it’s just going to be probably the process of natural elimination that happens, where one or however many of us will be eliminated throughout the process just due to unforeseen circumstances. How many of us will be there at the end? Obviously, Joe (Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing team owner) would hope that it’s all four of us and whether or not that happens is yet to be seen.”
How does it feel to kick off the Chase with a top-10 finish?
“There’s no doubt, certainly you’d rather win one and we had a good car all day and circumstances didn’t play in our favor at the end with my mistake speeding on pit road. I’m happy that we were able to recover, but it should have been third or fourth instead of eighth. There are still nine more weeks – nine long weeks – to go, but I know this team is focused and we’ll try to have another good race at New Hampshire with our M&M’S Camry and keep up some positive momentum from the last several weeks.”
Is the key to the Chase consistency, or winning?
“You’ve got to have one or the other. If you haven’t got consistency, then you better be winning. If you’re having consistency, then you don’t have to be winning. But, there’s nothing better than being able to win and move yourself automatically.”
The New Hampshire race is one of the shortest on the circuit. How do you approach that race, knowing you might have a little less time to get to the front at the end if you’re not there, already?
“Essentially, at Loudon, you’re looking at how good your fuel mileage is and you have to look at when you have to make your last pit stop, since that’s what everyone looks at. You end up running it almost like a road-course race because you do want to be the first guy on the last round of pit stops to pit. You want to get in there, get your tires and fuel, and then stay out the rest of the race and keep your track position since it’s so important there. It’s just a challenging race because it’s so hard to pass there. You can be two-tenths faster than a guy and not be able to pass him because everyone typically runs the same speed. You’ll have it where the leader might be a tenth (of a second) better than the second-place guy, but everyone is separated by so little that it takes a mistake on someone’s part in order to pass them there.”
When you make a mistake at Loudon, do you have much of a chance to recover?
“You don’t because you’re always on edge there. You’re trying to go as fast as you can into the corners, as deep as you can into the corners while rolling as much speed, or just a bit higher than everyone else so you are able to get back to the gas sooner. You’re going harder than everyone else in order to make the straightaway a little bit longer and get your momentum built back up. It’s definitely a challenging racetrack. I have won there in the past so, if we get a good car, then we might have a shot to win there.”
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