HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina (Aug. 29, 2017) –With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series taking a rare weekend off for the final time in 2017, many teams, drivers and industry personnel took off for the beach this past week to get in one last bit of rest before the final 12-week stretch of the regular season and playoff run that starts in mid-September.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is hoping to pick back up right where he left off before this past weekend’s break in the action. The Las Vegas native headed into the off weekend quite the happy driver as he not only won the series’ most recent race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, but swept the entire weekend’s races in NASCAR’s top three series for the second time in his career.
The Cup Series win at Bristol, Busch’s second over the last four races in NASCAR’s top series, has him and the M&M’S Caramel team feeling like they’re starting to peak at the right time with just two regular-season races remaining and the playoffs about to begin.
As the series heads to historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, the 2015 NASCAR Cup Series champion will look to build a huge wave of momentum heading into the final stretch of the season. Starting in 1950, the traditional Southern 500 at Darlington was held every Labor Day weekend. In 2004, the race was moved to the penultimate race of the season during the first year of NASCAR’s playoffs before it was eventually moved to the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend, where the Southern 500 name was brought back starting in 2009. In 2015, the race returned to its rightful and traditional spot on the calendar after a 12-year hiatus. Sunday night’s race will mark the 57th time NASCAR’s top series will race in Darlington, South Carolina on Labor Day weekend.
The M&M’S Caramel driver has conquered Darlington before, having brought home a big win at “The Track Too Tough to Tame” in May 2008. His first victory at Darlington earned him the distinction of being the youngest Cup Series winner – at 23 years of age – in the storied history of Darlington. Busch also has two Xfinity Series wins at Darlington, coming in May 2011 and 2013.
So, as Busch returns to “The Lady in Black” to compete in Sunday’s traditional Southern 500, he and the M&M’S Caramel team look to bring home their second win in what many consider to be one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races.
What are your thoughts heading back to Darlington this weekend?
“Going back to Darlington, it’s a place that’s really tough, really challenging. I won there the first year it was repaved and it’s been really fast. I’m looking forward to going back there and seeing what Darlington has got in store for us again. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the whole M&M’S Caramel team have really done well adapting to the various tracks that have been thrown at us this year, so Darlington is as unique as it gets. It gives me a lot of confidence that we can be right there with them this weekend yet again.”
What makes Joe Gibbs Racing so strong at Darlington?
“I like going to Darlington – it’s a fun place although it’s bit me a lot of times. I should have won probably twice as many races as I’ve won there, which is frustrating. I was glad to win there in 2008 and get my Southern 500 win – that was pretty cool. Why we’re good there? I don’t know, but it’s a place that a lot of the driver comes into play and I feel like all the JGR drivers obviously are really, really good. Of course, our equipment is good, too, and we can run fast there – run well there – and, if you can keep air in the tires, you might win.”
What do drivers mean when they say you have to “race the track” at Darlington?
“It’s tough to pass there, for sure. It’s so difficult. So you run your laps until you get to a pit stop and try to get your guys to have a good stop for you so you can jump a couple of guys. Pit stops become really important there, as is track position and trying to stay up front.”
What makes Darlington a track that is too tough to tame?
“It’s a very narrow and challenging racetrack, especially for the speeds that we carry around there, now. We’re looking forward to the challenge with our M&M’S Caramel Camry this weekend. You’ve really got to be able to get as close as you can to the wall in order to carry your momentum through the corners because you’ve got to make the straightaways as long as you can. The track is very narrow on entries and exits, so you’re always trying to round the place as much as you can. It’s very one-groovish. You can’t really run side-by-side there. Any time you get alongside somebody, you basically have to let them go. It’s a very big give-and-take-type track. It’s a lot harder to pass now, with the fresh asphalt, than it used to be. It’s really aero-sensitive now, to where it used to be more about mechanical grip and getting your car to handle well and handle over the bumps well and keep the tires on it. Now you’re restricted off the car in front of you and are trying to find some air, basically.”
Can you describe the “Darlington Stripe” and what it’s like to get one?
“A Darlington Stripe is pretty easy to receive. Running at Darlington is so tough and we are carrying so much speed there nowadays that you have to run right up there against the wall in order to get your car pointed correctly for the next corner, the next apex you have to make. So, running next to the wall in (turn) one and (turn) two and turning down coming off of two and carrying big momentum and big speed down the backstretch in order to set yourself up for turn three is important. Running high in three and four all the way through the corner, trying to keep the momentum going, because it’s such a tighter corner that the radius difference between each end of the track, you try to spread that radius as wide as you can and that’s right up against the wall. So, at any moment that car can slip and, during a run when the tires fall off, you have to be aware of one to two seconds of tire fall-off and your car is slowing down and at any moment you might slip a little bit and tag that wall. It can be very easy to do.”