On To New Hampshire
HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina (Sept. 19, 2017) – It was only the first race of the 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but 2015 champion Kyle Busch and his M&M’S Caramel team began their quest for their second championship Sunday with a disappointing day at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Caramel Toyota Camry, heads to this weekend’s second playoff event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon looking for a solid top-five finish that was a staple during the regular season. Busch had to settle for a 15th-place finish at Chicagoland despite leading 85 laps around the 1.5-mile oval after issues on pit road ended up trapping him a lap down, leaving him with little time to make up ground. But in the playoffs, drivers and teams take the bad days, minimize them as much as possible and move on, which is exactly what Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did after Sunday’s race.
The Chicagoland finish placed the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) pilot fifth in the playoff standings with a healthy 35-point buffer over 13th-place Kurt Busch. The 16-driver playoff field gets whittled down to 12 drivers after the third playoff race Oct. 1 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. Only those drivers with a win or a top-12 spot in points get to continue their championship pursuit.
Despite the disappointing day on Sunday, the kind of front-running consistency Busch has displayed throughout his 13-year Cup Series career will serve him well in the post season. Strong runs can help Busch advance through the initial rounds of NASCAR’s playoff-type format by virtue of his position in the standings, but winning is the automatic way to advance. And, as the series heads to New Hampshire for Sunday’s second playoff race – the ISM Connect 300 – Busch is still well positioned to punch his ticket to the Round of 12 with the consistent effort he and his team displayed throughout the regular season.
Busch won at New Hampshire in July 2015 to collect his second Cup Series 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 25 career Cup Series starts at New Hampshire, Busch has nine top-five finishes and 13 top-10s. But, more indicative of his prowess at the flat, paperclip-shaped track are his recent runs, which have included four top-twos dating back to July 2013 for Busch and the M&M’s Caramel team.
Even outside of NASCAR’s top series, Busch has proven to be rock solid in the Granite State. He has six NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at New Hampshire, along with four poles and nine top-fives in 12 career starts. And, in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Busch has three wins, two poles and six top-10s in eight career starts.
Busch knows he’ll need to put last week behind him since a strong run at New Hampshire, a track where he’s had success over the years, will position him well going into the first cutoff race the following week. The playoffs are a 10-week grind, but Busch and the M&M’S Caramel team are headed north to a track where they hope to have another rock solid performance and gain ground in the championship standings.
How do you move on from some disappointment last week?
“We had a good car all day and circumstances didn’t play out for us to get back up to the front. It’s good that we were able to recover to finish as good as we did. You want to have a top-15 finish in the first round and it will get you through. 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 Caramel Camry and keep up some positive momentum from the last several weeks.”
Is there a favorite driver this year to win the Playoffs?
“(Martin) Truex, and he showed us last week already. Just the way they've run. Now they're picking it up everywhere they go to. They're a scary team. They're a threat, that's for sure. If you look at, okay, what is Truex's worst track, Martinsville maybe. Probably a sixth or a seventh, that's it. Everywhere else it's a win. That's pretty scary. For us, I think we look at it as every track is a pretty good track. You look at Talladega as just being an unknown. For us, I feel like Texas is probably our worst place just with the repave, trying to figure out what it takes to be fast there.”
Is the key to the playoffs 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.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine