The new season is almost upon us.
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 11, 2014) – On the rear quarterpanels of the M&M’s Peanut-Themed No. 18 Toyota Camry Kyle Busch will compete with during the 2014 Daytona Speedweeks is a reminder that only “1 in 100” peanuts are lucky enough to find its way into a bag of M&M’s Peanut.
Busch is coming off a career-best fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2013, leading him to set his sights even higher in the form of not only the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, but also his first win in the Great American Race.
The 2014 season warms up with Saturday night’s non-points-paying Sprint Unlimited, where Busch brought home a victory in 2012, continues through next week’s Budweiser Duels, and begins in earnest Feb. 23 with the Daytona 500.
With every new season comes optimism, and this one is certainly no exception for Busch and his M&M’s Peanut team as the recently revamped Sprint Cup championship format lends itself to what Busch is one of the best at – winning. In fact, since 2008, only six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won more races in NASCAR’s premiere series than Busch, with Johnson tallying 33 wins during that time to Busch’s 24.
In the new 16-driver Sprint Cup championship format, just one win will lock a driver and team into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Once locked in, a series of three eliminations during the final 10-race stretch will culminate in a four-driver, winner-take-all championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the highest finisher of the race will be crowned champ.
If recent history is any indication, Busch will be one to watch as he and his team have proven to be capable of reeling off multiple wins, making them a focal point of any championship discussion.
So as Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s Peanut Toyota Camry prepare to head south from Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) Huntersville, N.C., headquarters this week, Busch ultimately would like nothing more than to be in elite company as the 36th name on the Harley J. Earl Trophy as a Daytona 500 champion.
It’s a long season, obviously – is there any part of the season you like better than others? Is there any part that gives you more energy coming in?
“I would admit that the beginning of the season is always just – you’re sort of – the freshest. It’s a lot easier to come out of the gate and feel revived and refreshed and ready to go and tackle a whole new season. It’s a fresh start. You’re not behind in any points. Essentially, you just look to try to build as big of a margin of cushion as you can to start instead of having to be at the end of the season and come from behind. I like the beginning of the year. I think Daytona is Daytona – you want to be the one in 43 to win. Daytona, if you can win it, great. I think the first five races don’t really mean a whole lot as far as the championship goes. It’s more about learning your team, getting a chemistry going, whether you have a new car or just the new chemistry within your team. And just being able to build, put your building blocks together in the first five weeks, and then it’s on from weeks six to 26, essentially. So you’ve got 20 weeks to prove yourself and make it in the Chase and we’ll still want to start the year off right with our M&M’s Peanut Camry.”
Did your team achieve the goals it set forth last season?
“We don’t necessarily ever set goals for our seasons. The 18 team – we don’t do that anymore. We used to and we used to never really achieve those goals. You want to say five wins, so many top-fives, so many top-10s and, when you’re not achieving those, then you feel you have to make up for the races we haven’t achieved our goals. We just go out there and we race to our potential, that’s what we try to do. We try to put everything out there and try to get everything we can out of the day or out of the weekend, whatever it may be. For instance, we run top-10 at Texas – if that’s what we have, then we reached out potential and that’s all we had for that day. Kansas last year, for instance, we certainly didn’t reach our potential. There was opportunity there for us to be better than 35th. Those are the races you look at and try to make yourself better. Those are the ones you have to learn from and not make the same mistakes over again.”
How soon will you be able to tell where Joe Gibbs Racing is this season? Obviously, cars haven’t gotten on the track, yet, but as a competitor, do you know until you get into the season a bit?
“If there was any indication in the Charlotte test back in December, the 4 car was ultimately the best car there. It was interesting, for sure, with the new rules and everything the way they are. We learned quite a bit of just what’s going on with our stuff and our equipment and what we need to try to work on continually from that test until we get to, say Phoenix or California or Vegas. As far as how soon can you tell where organizations are, that’s kind of like what I was mentioning earlier about the five races. You definitely work through the first five races, you kind of try different things, you experiment a bit, and you kind of pick a package that you want to attack with and you go down that path, and that’s the path you need to stick with. Whether it’s an organization or whether it’s a team, the 18 team might go down a path that it feels comfortable with, where the 11 might go down another path and the 20 may go down another, and we may end up merging, say, week 10 or 12 or something like that. But that’s sort of how I feel like the years have gone with being at JGR, and I think it’s been – I wouldn’t say more controlled, but I would say it’s just been – more uniform the last two or three years with the crew chiefs we now have on board and the way their camaraderie is and the way that they work together.”
Do you believe racing Nationwide and Truck Series events aids in performance?
“I would say so and I would argue the fact that it did help. I’ve said that all the time. There are drivers out there – there are the Jeff Gordons, the Jimmie Johnsons – who run way better just running one. I’m not one of those guys. I feel like running the Nationwide and the Truck and stuff like that helps me and gives me a better opportunity to be better on Sundays. I may still not win as much as, say, the Jimmie Johnsons or even the Matt Kenseths who don’t run as much but, to me, I just feel like I’m better ready for Sunday than I would be just not racing those races. I think last year and every year except 2012, not running as many helps me and gives me a better opportunity to be ready to go come Sunday.”
How much will the new ride height rules impact teams?
“It’s affected us enough where we’ve been testing an awful lot this offseason already trying to figure things out and trying to come up with what’s going to be best. Is running the old way going to be best? Is running a new way or running something entirely different going to be good? What is it? That’s been the story of what we’ve been working on. We’ve been to Nashville twice. We’ve had short-track testing on the schedule. And then I’m sure we’ll have another short-track test before Martinsville. I’m sure we’ll be going to Nashville if the weather ever warms up again. Nashville is going to get a lot of business this year, I have a feeling.”
Do you anticipate teams taking more risks during every race in order to get a win?
“You do, you take some risks for sure. There are obviously times when you stay out and, let’s say you’re on your second-from-the-last run of the race – do you stay out and not pit or do you short pit, do you grab tires now and wait for everybody else to pit and kind of jump over them? There are so many different things you weigh every single minute of the race – that the crew chiefs weigh, and sometimes the crew chiefs even ask the driver, ‘What do you want to do?’ It’s kind of like, ‘I don’t know.’ There are going to be a lot more risk takers with this strategy than maybe what there had been in the past, but you’re also going to have to weigh that risk and know what consequences it has for you too.”