In most team sports, having home-field advantage can make a difference in the outcome of a game, and that typically occurs for at least half of each season. In NASCAR, while many drivers race at venues near their hometowns, there are no more than two “home games” each 36-race season.
Not so for Kyle Busch, driver of the No. M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) at Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350k on the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma, Calif. The Las Vegas native feels very much at home all up and down the western part of the country, where the series races no less than five times each year from Phoenix to Sonoma.
While he’ll be enjoying a home game this weekend, the talented 27-year-old is also hitting the road – namely the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma, for Sunday’s 350-kilometer challenge of both right turns and lefts.
Before 2008, nobody even thought to mention Busch as a threat to win either of Sprint Cup’s annual road-course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. But that all changed shortly after his arrival at JGR at the start of 2008 as Busch dominated the road-course scene that year, leading 130 of a total of 202 road-course laps and capturing victories at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
More of that expertise goes to Max Papis, who was our test driver at Hendrick, and learning stuff from him and guys like Boris Said and Robby Gordon, the guys who are good at it and are fast at it.
Similar to NASCAR regulars like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon who are known to be strong on the road courses, Busch quickly established himself four seasons ago as a routine road-course contender and has been in the hunt on road courses ever since. Most recently, Busch sat on the Sprint Cup pole in August at Watkins Glen, and then led a race-high three times for 49 laps before losing the lead on a late restart to road-course ace Marcos Ambrose and finishing in the runner-up spot.
So, as the Sprint Cup Series heads to its annual stop in Northern California’s Wine Country, everyone knows Busch is capable of winning anywhere in his comfortable surroundings of his “home” out West, just like he did at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2009. They also know he’s always a threat to win on the “road” courses, as he is this weekend at Sonoma.
How intense have the road-course races become?
“I think, ever since double-file restarts came about, aggression at Sonoma has gone up a lot. You have these cautions that come late in the going and cautions breed cautions – especially on a road course and especially with double-file restarts. It just seems to be out of control there. You’re trying to take everything you can get and get all the positions you can because it’s coming down to crunch time. It’s a place where, for me, it’s been fun to race. I’ve won there and I’ve also had some disappointing runs there and I’ve had some mistakes there – some wheel-hop issues and things. For me, it’s a place where you’re turning right and turning left and being at a road course is kind of like an off weekend, so you try to enjoy it the best you can. It’s also Wine Country, so you make a vacation out of it.” Is it hard to drive in fuel-conservation mode?
“It is, but I think the thing about saving fuel at Sonoma is just grabbing gears quicker and short-shifting a little bit – not running it to the maximum RPM as much. Also, under cautions, you shut the engine off and roll down the hill. That’s a big deal of it. If you have to race somebody or you see someone in front of you and you can catch them, you’re not going to have much opportunity to save fuel.”
Is it physically hard to get in the mindset to save fuel?
“You definitely have to get in the mindset to drive in a way to save fuel. It’s not challenging, it’s not hard, but it’s just different. Whether you’re going to be the guy who lifts early and coasts into the corner or you’re going to be the guy who lifts early and pushes the clutch in – I’ve even seen people who will push the clutch in and the engine will die and then they’ll let the clutch back out and it will pop back in. That’s the most challenging one, I would say. If you have to do it to make it to the end, then you’re going to do all you can.”
Do you enjoy road-course racing?
“The road courses are fun. For me, I enjoy it. It’s pretty cool to go out there and race the road courses. You get to turn right, turn left and everything, so it’s fun. Sonoma is more technical just because there are more turns and it’s a little bit slower. You have to concentrate on getting off the corner a little bit and have good forward bite. Sonoma, in our M&M’s Toyota, is going to be fun, going out there and seeing what these cars have this year. It will be a fun race, though. I always look forward to going up there and challenging the road course.”
How challenging is it to race against road-course specialists who you might not race against on a regular basis?
“It’s different, already. There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do. The neat thing about road racing is just being able to have – it’s like a vacation weekend. You just go out there and have fun and do the best you can and you’ll either do really well or you’ll do really bad and you just go on to the next one. We do have some testing for it and you try to pick up on it but, with respect to who you’re racing, you can expect to race a little bit of a different crowd. (Marcos) Ambrose has been really good, of course, so we’ve been racing him more and more on the ovals, too. Juan Pablo (Montoya), the same thing. Jimmie (Johnson), Jeff (Gordon), who have been a lot better at the road courses, so now you race against them, you race against Tony Stewart. A lot of the guys who race well at both, you race against every week.”
Is it important in your career to have a road-course win?
“I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s great to be able to have wins at all types of facilities. I think, in ’08, when I won the road-course races, I also won the road-course race in Mexico. That was a big road-course year for me, for some reason. I just clicked at all of them. We’ve run top-five and top-10 since but haven’t quite been the car to beat at those road courses. I enjoy that type of racing and I’d like to get back to it and it’s cool, the opportunity that comes at Sonoma.”
What’s your favorite part of racing at Sonoma?
“The elevation changes can make it a lot of fun but, in the beginning, I was lost at Sonoma, to be honest with you. I raced Legends cars and other road courses five years ago and learned the technique and stuff of shifting and braking and all that, and then got to the Cup cars, and they’re so different. I was just lost. I give a lot of that credit to testing with Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) a lot of times and learning a lot from those guys when I was at Hendrick and working with them. And, of course, more of that expertise goes to Max Papis, who was our test driver at Hendrick, and learning stuff from him and reading reports that he did and picking up on it, following guys like Boris Said and Robby Gordon, the guys who are good at it and are fast at it.”