HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina – If one were to look at Kyle Busch’s last seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, the difference for the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) couldn’t be any more stark.
The 1.5-mile oval built in 2001, which originally featured a constant 15 degrees of banking in the turns, underwent a massive renovation project leading into its October 2012 Sprint Cup event. The changes included repaving of the existing track surface, reconfiguration of the oval, and the addition of a new infield road course. The oval’s geometric shape also was changed to feature variable banking of 17 to 20 degrees in the turns.
To say that Busch didn’t take well to the new surface would be quite the understatement. From October 2012 to 2013, Busch had three consecutive DNFs (Did Not Finish) there, with accidents ending his day each time for final results of 31st, 38th and 34th.
Feeling snake bit on the new Kansas surface, Busch and his M&M’S team took a different approach starting with the April 2014 race there by starting from scratch with a brand-new car. They attacked the track in the Heartland of America with the hopes that a fresh outlook would produce vastly different results. While a pit-road speeding penalty cost them precious track position and an even better finish in the race, the result and effort was much different than the three previous trips. Instead, they were competitive enough to turn the corner in terms of results.
Starting with the October 2014 Sprint Cup race at Kansas, Busch brought home his first ever top-five finish at the track. Anyone who has ever followed Busch’s career knows this year’s defending Sprint Cup Series champion never cared much for moral victories. However, the momentum carried over from the October 2014 top-five to his next Kansas race in October 2015, when he finished a solid third. It was a finish that helped vault him through to the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs and eventually to the championship stage.
This past May, Busch took an even bigger step at Kansas, where he posted not only his third top-five in a row but, after leading 69 total laps, he brought home his first Sprint Cup win at the 1.5-mile oval that has finally started to wear in and become more agreeable to Busch’s driving style.
Along with his recent Sprint Cup success there, Busch has also tasted success at Kansas in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition – as is the case at most racetracks on the Xfinity schedule – with victories in 2007 and the fall races in 2014 and 2015. Busch also brought home a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Kansas in April 2014, all of which no doubt add to his growing confidence on the fast, 1.5-mile oval.
Sunday afternoon in Kansas, Busch and the M&M’S team will look to tackle the second race of the 2016 Chase’s Round of 12 as the Las Vegas native sits 25 points ahead of ninth-place in his bid to advance to the Round of 8. Busch and his team made a championship-like comeback from damage suffered on a late race restart to finish sixth last weekend during the first race of the Round of 12 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads the Heartland of America for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Hollywood Casino 400, a fourth top-five finish in a row at Kansas could be just what Busch needs to put himself in prime position to advance to the Round of 8 as he looks to defend his Sprint Cup title.
What a difference seven races at Kansas have made for Busch and his M&M’S team.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What will JGR do this week to have the best possible race at Kansas and not have to worry about Talladega?
“We’re going to do the same things we’ve always done, same preparation, nothing different. You know, in the spring earlier this year, (Matt) Kenseth has always been fast at Kansas, so we looked at a lot of his stuff, a lot of how his car was set up and what not, and we learned some of those things from those guys who I felt helped us and got us better in the ballpark for Kansas in the springtime, when we won there. There was a lot of work done for that, and on my behalf, as well, that I think that helped out. We’ll just do the same things this time around. It’s no different than what we typically do each and every week, though. I know Adam (Stevens, crew chief) will have a good M&M’S Camry and we will keep doing what we’ve been doing well all year long.”
You won at Kansas in the spring after all the trouble and so many close calls and so much bad luck. Does it help the confidence at all for you guys going in there and knowing that you finally hit on something there?
“It certainly did. Obviously (Martin) Truex has been super fast this year, as well. He was probably the car to beat in Kansas earlier this year, (but) I think he had something happen to him on pit road, and we got off pit road better than he did on the final run, so we were able to win that one. Before that, there in the spring, we started on Kenseth’s notes like I alluded to. We’ve got some good teammates to lean on, and that’s really helped us with our M&M’S Toyota, and I look forward to Kansas. Normally, in years past, I probably wouldn’t say those words but, you know, it’s actually not been a bad place for us there, recently. We’ve had a good string of top-fives so, hopefully, we can go there and have another good, solid run, have a good finish, and the biggest thing for us is to just don’t beat ourselves right now. Don’t make the mistakes that some of these other guys did, try to keep our nose clean. And, if there’s a win, great, get it, and if not, get what you can get – third, fourth, fifth, whatever it can be.”
Kansas had been a frustrating place for you during your career, but have you and your team turned the corner there with three top-five finishes in a row there?
“I think so. We ran third there in the fall of 2014. I wasn’t there in the spring race of 2015 since that was the last race I was recovering from my injury, but (Erik) Jones ran up front until he ended up wrecking. Last fall, Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the M&M’S guys did an awesome job and we ran top-five again. We tested there before the October race last year and I think we learned a lot that we were able to use during the race weekend. The last few races there, the track really has started to change and the groove is starting to spread out, and it makes me more comfortable when a track gets worn in. Adam and the guys have been bringing really good racecars to the track every weekend and, when you have great cars and run up front, good things are going to happen.”
What did it mean to win at yet another track for the first time in the Sprint Cup Series when you were able to cross Kansas off the list back in May?
“There are only two that I haven’t won at now, and those two – I’ve had so many opportunities to win at those places. I’ve not had very many opportunities to win at Kanas, so I’m pretty confident that we can knock the other ones off the list eventually. I’m excited about that opportunity and working with this team of guys and Adam Stevens and everybody he has assembled. It’s so much fun. This group is – really means a lot to me, and a strong run at Kansas could really help us in the Chase standings. But, as we’ve seen, anything can happen in this sport and with this format. As you saw with us at Charlotte, there are certain circumstances that can go against you, and you just have to persevere and keep fighting until the checkered flag falls. That’s one thing Adam and this team have been very good at. They never give up.”
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