HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Just 50 miles separate the headquarters of Mars Chocolate North America and the site of Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway.
A prerace visit to the Hackettstown, N.J., headquarters by driver Kyle Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota team for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) might be just the spark that will help them capture their first-ever win together at Pocono as they hope some recent momentum will continue at the 2.5-mile triangle.
Heading into Pocono, Busch and the entire JGR organization have started to hit their stride. Busch has scored runner-up finishes three out of the last four races, starting at the end of June at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, with second-place runs at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and last weekend’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Also at Indianapolis, JGR posted a 2-3-4 finish that marked the first time all three cars have finished in the top-five together since September of 2010, when Denny Hamlin won at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, Busch finished second and former JGR driver Joey Logano finished fourth.
Busch will no doubt find plenty of encouragement during the prerace visit to Mars Chocolate North America. There, the M&M’s driver and the entire No. 18 JGR team will have the opportunity to meet with hundreds of Mars associates, and many of those same associates will travel just down the road to Pocono Sunday to cheer for Busch.
The Las Vegas native has won at 17 of the 23 tracks at which the Sprint Cup Series competes. The only six tracks Busch has failed to reach victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series are: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and, of course, Pocono.
Busch makes it no secret that Pocono has given him fits over the years. He has six top-10 finishes in 19 previous starts there, along with eight finishes of 22nd or worse. But, three of his top-five finishes have come during his last seven outings at the 2.5-mile triangle, and some of his best finishes have come since he joined JGR at the start of the 2008 season.
The M&M’s team will hope to glean some positive vibes from the Mars associates and hopes to keep the positive momentum going. So, as the series heads back to the Pocono Mountains for Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400, Busch, crew chief Dave Rogers and the entire M&M’s team will look to improve on several runner-up finishes by finding one more position and vault into victory lane for the first time at the “Tricky Triangle.”
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Is Sunday’s 2-3-4 finish at Indianapolis what we can expect in the Chase from the JGR teams?
“I don’t know that you pin it on one race. I finished second at Kentucky, Loudon and Indy. We had some good races going. It would be certainly more beneficial to pick up some trophies, take some trophies home, get some of those benefits for the Chase. Three second places, that’s 11 extra points that you miss out on. That’s a bummer for the Chase and for those bonus points. But, you know, if we keep going that way, then things will pay off sooner or later. We’ll start winning some. Hopefully, we can do just that this weekend with our M&M’s Camry at Pocono.”
Pocono is the most unique track on the circuit with three distinct corners. What’s the most difficult part of the track for you?
“The hardest part of the track, for me, is probably turn one, and then turn two is the second-hardest, and then turn three is the third-hardest. Turn three, last year, because of the patch they laid down – we couldn’t go down low and get underneath somebody and get a run on them because, when you come off the corner, you’re 8 to 10 mph slower than the guy on your outside, and they’re just going to blow right by you going down the straightaway.”
Are you encouraged with what you’ve seen from JGR over the last month?
“For sure. Everyone at JGR and Toyota have been working really hard and we are starting to see that pay off. We’ve had three second-place finishes in the last four races. We would certainly like to have more trophies to show for it but, when you start running well like we have been, good things are going to come of it. We have made small gains in many areas, but we also have some work to do to get to where we want to be as we get closer to the Chase. But it’s hard not to be encouraged with what we’ve seen out of our cars here recently. I’m hoping some of that momentum will translate to this weekend at Pocono since we struggled in the first race there and we want to improve on that run from June.”
Did the repaving of the track at Pocono change the racing at all there the last couple of years?
“I thought the racing there was kind of the same, not much different. It was a little bit harder to pass because it seems like, when you’re out front in clean air, you have so much more of an advantage than being back in traffic than what it used to be – slightly, not much. To me, it was always a hard, tricky place, but it’s actually finally started becoming a two-lane racetrack in turn three. You could run the bottom and you could run the top with what we call ‘the grip strip.’ Now, it’s all grip, so it’s all back to the bottom again and you can’t really make much time up on the outside anymore. I know they had a pretty tough winter up there. It weathers the surface even more and it widens the groove so we can put on some good racing there.”
Since the track is unique, where is the best place to make a pass at Pocono?
“Most of your passing is going to be done probably through turn one and off of turn one and getting into turn two, if somebody can get a good run off of turn two, get back up high and get in line to get on that patch getting into turn three. Besides that, in turn one, we just can’t get the cars to turn down there because there’s so much load on the bump stops from going 210 mph down the front straightaway and then trying to slow it down to about a ‘buck-40’ (140). Turn two is kind of bumpy and kind of rough. There are different areas where you’ve got to maneuver through the tunnel turn to get your car right. If you miss it just by a little bit, you tend to knock the wall down off the corner, so it’s tight.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine