Kyle Busch: Knowns and unknowns at Bristol

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night race, Kyle Busch is facing some knowns and plenty of unknowns in the racing mecca known as “Thunder Valley.”

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

The obvious known is that the driver of the No. 18 Doublemint® Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has a stellar record at the .533-mile high-banked bullring, with five Sprint Cup wins to his credit in 15 career starts there.

While his Bristol dominance has been well documented in recent years, there are plenty of unknowns that lie ahead on Saturday night. For starters, since the March 18 Food City 500, the Bristol track has undergone another round of changes. For starters, the top groove of the racing surface has been changed to eliminate the progressive banking incorporated during the previous track resurfacing project in 2007. How drastic will the changes be? That’s a huge unknown until practice commences at noon Friday.

The next unknown for the Las Vegas native is his position in the Sprint Cup standings as the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup locks in after the next three events. Busch sits 14th in the standings but is just 11 points behind Ryan Newman, who holds the second of two Chase wild card positions. Busch and Newman both have one win and another win by Busch in the next three races could essentially lock him into NASCAR’s postseason. If not, Busch will hope to have strong finishes and leapfrog Newman for the final Chase spot by virtue of a higher position in the points. Meanwhile, Busch must also keep his and Newman’s fellow single-win drivers this season –Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, and Marcos Ambrose – behind him in the standings.

Despite the surface changes at Bristol, Busch hopes many of the same principles apply that led him to his five Sprint Cup wins there, including four in the last seven races.

While Busch is on quite a roll at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” it’s interesting to note he didn’t immediately take to the place and has been able to adapt to past changes there. During his rookie year in 2005, he posted finishes of 28th and 33rd. But Busch’s record in his last 11 Bristol starts has been nothing short of amazing. After bringing home finishes of eighth and second in 2006, Busch captured his first Sprint Cup win there in March 2007. The track was resurfaced after that race and, since then, nobody has been better at the concrete short track than Busch. He added four more wins, five top-five finishes and seven top-10s in the last 10 Sprint Cup races contested there.

Those numbers are certainly impressive, and Busch’s most notable Bristol feat occurred in August 2010, when he became the first driver in history to win all three of NASCAR’s national touring series events in the same weekend. He won the Wednesday-night Camping World Truck Series race, then the Friday-night Nationwide race, and he topped it off by wheeling his No. 18 Doublemint Toyota to victory and into the history books in Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race. Busch led four times for a race-high 282 laps in the latter event, bringing his weekend total to 514 laps led of a possible 956.

So while there are both knowns and unknowns on tap for Busch this weekend, it’s a safe bet that Busch and the No. 18 Doublemint team will be right in the thick of things on Saturday night.

KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 Doublemint® Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:

How will the changes being made to Bristol Motor Speedway impact the racing? “That’s a tough situation for Bruton (Smith, track owner), for the guys up there at Bristol – for anybody. It’s too bad to see them change a perfectly good racetrack that promotes good side-by-side racing for a lot of the event. I don’t put the blame on the racetrack at all. I think we’ve had some really good races there since it’s been repaved that way. Last fall, Joey (Logano) and I raced each other side-by-side for the last 15 laps before we were banging doors in (turns) three and four coming to the checkered. In 2008, Carl Edwards and I were running into each other and everything else there. There’s been a lot of good racing at Bristol. It’s not the ‘move the guy out of the way, spin somebody out,’ atmosphere anymore and, if fans want to see wrecks, then I guess we have to wreck more. It’s actually good for us drivers to not have to have those things and not have that kind of drama that we have to deal with, but if the fans need that in order to buy tickets, then I guess we’ve got to do what we need to do. I haven’t won the last two races there, but the last couple tire compounds we had before that were really good. You could race on the bottom, you could turn on the bottom, and you could still have good forward bite up off the corners. I felt like the Goodyear guys maybe changed the way the race played out a little bit in changing the tire. They really didn’t expect that or want that, but that’s how I feel about it.”

Is it the racetrack, in particular, that allows you to be so successful at Bristol, of late? “We kind of upset the apple cart last fall – we just didn’t have a very good weekend there. With the Truck race, we kind of got crashed out. The Nationwide race – I barely beat Joey (Logano), which was good – we won. Then the Cup race, we just made so many changes to the car based on how the Nationwide car ran that it threw us for a loop. In the spring, we never got the chance to get going since we ended up in a wreck early in the race. I like going to Bristol. It’s always fun. What set in there to allow me to run as well as I do? I’ve got no idea. It just kind of clicked. I think I missed a little bit of some of that stuff last fall, just not having the car set up right and trying too many different things that we’re not quite used to. We ventured from the path a little bit and it seems like, when you can get a good setup somewhere, you ought to stick with it and try to just fine-tune on it a little bit instead of saying, ‘This isn’t working this time or it’s not working on this tire.’ The track, most of the time, will influence how your setup should be, not the tire. We’ll see if the changes throws us for a loop or not.”

What is the most challenging aspect of Bristol? “I think the most challenging aspect of Bristol is just how difficult it is to transition through from the straightaways to the corners, back to the straightaways and have your car set up in order to do all that. Sometimes you can be really loose getting in, or you can be really tight in the middle – you just seem to never be able to get a good-flowing car that works well there. Drivers have to do a lot of manipulation with the racetrack with their car in order to try to make the best of it.”

How have you figured out the best way to get around Bristol Motor Speedway? “It has just kind of really worked well together. It’s a fun place that you go to that you like going to. You enjoy the race around there. We grew up at the ‘Bullring’ (in Las Vegas) and stuff like that. Maybe not as banked as Bristol is, but I love going and racing at Winchester (Ind.) and at Slinger (Wis.), Salem (Ind.) – those are all really high-banked racetracks that are a half-mile in distance, or a quarter. They’re really fun to race around and you kind of get a great feel for racing in a bowl. You go down the straightaway and you slam it into the corners and you mash the gas and you kind of sling right back out of the corners. It’s a lot of fun to do that. It’s kind of an art. Some guys are really good at it, and some find a knack that makes them really good at it and makes it seem easy. I remember, last spring we were horrible there. You can definitely snap that string pretty quickly.”

What makes Bristol Motor Speedway so unique and a place that fans love? “Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the best racetracks on the circuit. All the fans love it because of the excitement, the run-ins, and the close-quarter action with all the cars being packed on top of one another at a half-mile racetrack with us 43 lunatics running around in a tight circle. With the fans, the atmosphere there always makes for a good time.”

Source: Joe Gibbs Racing

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Series NASCAR-CUP
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Tags busch, gibbs, toyota