One That Got Away
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C.– Kyle Busch has many fond memories from among his now 29 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins, including an unlikely win last month at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where he made a last-lap pass during a green-white-checkered shootout to take home his most recent trophy.
There are also many races where he felt victory was within his grasp but got away from him short of the checkered flag, and last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was one of those races. Busch dominated the 2013 event at Darlington, leading a race-high 265 of the grueling 317-lap race.
The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) was leading late in the race when a slow leak in his right-rear tire over the final run of the evening dropped him from the top spot with just 13 laps to go, forcing Busch to settle for a sixth-place finish after such a dominant day.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads back to historic Darlington for Saturday night’s Southern 500, Busch will look to bring back the same sort of dominance with his M&M’s Toyota. But this time, he hopes to bring home the trophy in a race considered by many within the sport to be one of the toughest yet most satisfying to win.
Busch, the Las Vegas native, has conquered Darlington before when he brought home the win at the “Track Too Tough To Tame” in May 2008. His first victory at the 1.33-mile, egg-shaped oval earned him the distinction of being the youngest Sprint Cup winner – at 23 years of age – in the storied history of Darlington. While not on the same weekend, Busch also has one Nationwide Series win at Darlington, scoring that one in May 2011.
As Busch returns to “The Lady in Black” for Saturday night’s race, there’s no doubt he’ll be thinking about the one that got away while, at the same time, hoping to add another dominant performance and another Darlington trophy to his extensive collection.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
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. Last couple of years there, we had a really good car. We ended up with a solid finish with our M&M’s Camry there two years ago and, last year, we had such a good racecar and had a slow leak in the tire that dropped us to sixth. Hoping we can hold on for all 500 miles there and be leading when it counts this time since we were so close last year. But, I’m looking forward to going back there and seeing what Darlington has got in store for us again. I’m hearing that the track color has changed a little bit more with another year for the surface to mature, so maybe the grip level is not going to be old Darlington, but something similar.”
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 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 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 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.”
How important was it to win a race early in the season with the new format?
“I don’t know that it’s hugely important, but it certainly takes a load off your shoulders and just kind of relieves a little bit – puts another breath in your sails. I think that’s sort of the biggest thing. There are going to be guys who get in (the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship), I believe, without wins. It sort of guarantees your spot, so now it gives you more opportunity to experiment. It gives you more opportunity to take chances and stuff like that and see if you can’t roll out some other wins.”
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.”
Being a former winner, what does it take to win at Darlington?
“I won the first year there with the new car and I think it was just because everyone was new to the car. We were really fast there last year with another new car and I hope we have the same speed in the car we had last year. However, in 2009, a lot of people got a lot smarter. And for us, we fell a little bit behind. You just have to bide your time, and I wasn’t very good at that in 2009, but much better at that as the years go by and you get more experience in this sport. You’ve got to make sure you keep working on your car and be very patient and be there toward the end if you want to win at Darlington.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine