HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Kyle Busch remembers the day well. It was Aug. 21, 2011, and with just four top-10 finishes to that point in his career at Michigan International Speedway, he found himself outdueling now six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for the win in a late-race shootout at the 2-mile oval.
But, during the offseason that followed, the heavily worn Michigan racing surface was repaved because of the toll the harsh Upper Midwest winters wreaked on the pavement. In the four races since, Busch has two finishes outside the top-30, but also one top-five finish there last June.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), hopes to use the same approach he and crew chief Dave Rogers used on the repaved Kansas Speedway in Kansas City surface last month while making this weekend’s stopover in the Irish Hills for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Quicken Loans 400.
Even though the Kansas boxscore showed a result of 15th for Busch, he and Rogers felt they benefitted from a dramatically different approach there than in the past. They started from a blank sheet of paper and raced strongly at times. But a pit-road speeding penalty, coupled with alternate fuel strategies employed by others, proved costly. Anyone who has ever followed Busch knows he has never been into moral victories. However, the team overcame its past issues and posted that 15th-place finish at Kansas, where it failed to finish at each of the last four races.
As the M&M’s team struggled similarly on Michigan’s now-smooth asphalt surface last August, it’ll use the approach this weekend that it did at Kansas. On newer surfaces, grip level is greatly increased, which makes the speeds faster than usual. But, the racing groove remains narrower than usual as the track continues to take time taking Goodyear tire rubber. Eventually, the groove will widen and competitors will have more options for three- and four-wide racing. In the meantime, sound tire and fuel strategy will be the key to making sure this trip to the Automobile State is a successful one.
So, as Busch and the M&M’s team head to the Upper Midwest this weekend, they’ll hope to benefit from the same approach they used on other repaves and that it will bear fruit with a second Sprint Cup victory of the season Sunday afternoon in the Irish Hills of Michigan.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
While the results might not have exactly shown it, was taking a different approach at Kansas beneficial, and is the mindset similar for Michigan?
“I think anything other than wrecking at Kansas was heading in the right direction. I think we ran pretty well there. I give Dave (Rogers) and the guys a lot of credit for working hard to find something I was more comfortable with there. I know they are doing the same thing for Michigan. We are working on improving as an organization and everyone is working their guts out to get our stuff better. I’m in the shop at least every Tuesday and you see how hard everyone is working. I do appreciate it.”
Most drivers really seem to enjoy racing at Michigan International Speedway. Why is that?
“Regardless of new pavement or not, it’s wide-open racing, and you can run from top to bottom. The biggest thing used to be to find grip there. But with the new surface, there is a ton of grip now. Before, you had grip for maybe five laps, and then you’d just be out to lunch. But now, the tire wear is all out the window, and the racetrack is very fast. And the wide racetrack is good. That’s what makes Michigan so exciting and so fun. That’s the biggest deal about it.”
You won the last race before the track was resurfaced. Are you expecting the track to change a bit since it was an especially harsh winter there?
“I’m hoping it has aged a bit and widened out a little bit more. We struggled on the repaved tracks the last couple of years, but we were much improved at Kansas than we were there last year, so that gives me hope that we can do the same at Michigan this week. We just have to keep working hard and chip away at it like we approached the race at Kansas. I’m hoping we can learn enough in practice that we can have a good run there this weekend. One of the biggest things on repaved tracks is track position. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and the M&M’s guys have worked really hard on our qualifying setup, and I think we’ve improved on that as an organization with the new qualifying format. It will have to start with a good qualifying effort and see what we can learn in practice Saturday.”
With the rough Michigan winter, do you expect the track surface to be worn in a little bit more than the first two seasons on the repaved surface?
“I expect it to be fast, still. With a new surface, there’s always a lot of grip and we need more than a couple of years to break it in. We’ve set tracks records at most places we’ve been this year and I would expect some more of that this weekend. I know the pace will be fast at Michigan this weekend. But if you are just a little bit loose there, now you are nervous that just any little bit of getting outside the groove or having a little bit too much yaw will lead to a wreck. It was really intense last year in our tests and in the races there. You are hauling there now, for sure. With a combination of the third year on a new surface and the rules changes on the car this year, I don’t expect that to change much.”
How do you evaluate your past runs at Michigan?
“We’ve had some good days there. We’ve had some not-so-good days. Last June was actually pretty good for us, but not so much in August. We qualified OK but then got back in traffic and had a hard time recovering from being back there. We finished fourth, which was good for us and our team and how sometimes we run there. I’m excited about the opportunity to come back and try to change it up a little bit and maybe run a little bit better this time and just be able to get the M&M’s Camry back to victory lane, hopefully, in Michigan.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine