KYLE BUSCH The Great Unknown
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Feb. 14, 2011) - It's not exactly Lewis and Clark wondering what they would find in the vast Louisiana Purchase, but Kyle Busch and Jason Ratcliff do have some questions as they prepare for Saturday's DRIVE4COPD 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
The driver and crew chief of the No. 18 Z-Line Designs Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) enter the 2011 Nationwide Series season with a similar mindset Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had in 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson asked them to explore what is now the western part of the United States: "We're not really sure what we're getting into here, but we'll figure it out as quickly as possible and adjust as need be."
After back-to-back Nationwide Series owner titles for the No. 18 Toyota, Busch's 2009 Nationwide Series driver championship and 22 race victories as a tandem in the last two years, Busch and Ratcliff head to Daytona with a mountain of uncertainty in front of them as there is a new-style Nationwide Series car, a new fueling system for the pit crew, and new pavement at Daytona for the first time since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.
Simply put, everything that was known in the past has been thrown out, and all teams and drivers are starting from scratch.
The new-style Nationwide Series car includes a wider and taller cockpit, a longer wheelbase and a new front section. It was used only four times last year - in July at Daytona, in August at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, in September at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, and in October at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
Since the new-style car was used at Daytona last July, one would think what was learned then could be applied during Saturday's 120-lap event. But a fresh layer of asphalt was laid around the 2.5-mile oval for the first time since 1979, which completely changes the handling of cars since new pavement means much more grip than in years past.
If a new car and a new surface weren't enough, NASCAR implemented new rules for fueling cars in 2011, eliminating the catch can position on the pit crew. Rather than having a crewmember hold a can to catch the overflowing fuel from the gas tank during a pit stop, a new gas can will not only fuel the car, but also catch the overflowing gas.
Because the catch can man often helped make track bar and wedge adjustments during pit stops, Ratcliff and other crew chiefs have had to figure out new ways to pit cars in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
So, while no team has been as successful as Busch and Ratcliff have over the last two years, it's almost as if the reset button has been pushed and they have to start all over in order to build another dominating run.
But while Lewis and Clark took 18 months to reach the Pacific Ocean, Ratcliff, Busch and the Z-Line Designs team are hoping it won't be that long until they find victory lane once again.
Kyle Busch, Driver of the No. 18 Z-Line Designs NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry:
What is your level of excitement heading into 2011?
"I feel pretty good about it. I'm pretty confident with the guys and with the team and with the cars and everything. Overall, we're all pumped up and ready to go. You sit around all winter long and you think about when the season's going to start and it turns around and it's here, already. You're like, 'I'm not ready.' We're excited, and with Daytona testing now in our rearview mirror, we can look forward to getting to Daytona and it's going to be fun."
You and the Z-Line Designs team have had so much success the past few seasons. What are your thoughts on Daytona, given all the changes during the offseason?
"Obviously, using the new car full-time will be the biggest change. We had so much success with the old car, we wouldn't mind continuing to run that car. But, I know the guys have been working really hard to get a fleet of cars built up, so we're ready for the season. Daytona will be really interesting with the new car, the new pavement and the new fueling system. There are just a lot of unknowns, so it should be a wide-open race. I know the guys will prepare a great Z-Line Designs Camry and we'll see what we can do."
How have you adapted to being married?
"Married life is excellent. Samantha (Busch, wife) and I - we've had a great time, thus far. It's been good. We had a chance to go to the Super Bowl, which was a lot of fun. So, it's been good."
Can you talk about what Z-Line Designs, Jim Sexton (Z-Line president) and his wife Monica have meant to you and your career?
"They've been huge supporters of my career. We've won 16 races together and two championships and they were there for both championships and most of the race victories. They're huge fans of mine but, more importantly, they're great friends to Samantha and me. You can't really ask much more than that from a sponsor. We've done commercials for them, which has been great. This is our fourth year together and I hope there are many more to come."
What benefit do you get from running NASCAR Nationwide and Truck Series races?
"I think running the trucks and running the Nationwide Series gives you that extra experience on the racetrack. You still have special traits with different tire compounds that Goodyear comes out with, and with all the vehicles now having splitters and all having limited front-end travel - all the concepts and ideas are sort of the same. The level of information that's being put in the cookie jar is a lot more than just running with one team. Your thought processes are a bit different and your experience level just gains a lot faster."
Jason Ratcliff, Crew Chief of the No. 18 Z-Line Designs NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry:
With the addition of a third JGR Nationwide Series team and having to build new-style Nationwide Series cars, has this off-season been busier than others?
"It's been slammed. With the addition of the (No.) 11 team, it's building that many more cars. And that's not a negative. It just makes for more work. You have to rebuild your whole fleet. Last year, we built three (new-style) cars per team and, after four races, we learned enough that I don't want to say those cars are obsolete, but they are no longer what you think you need, so you go back and rebuild. So, we basically started from scratch when we got back from Homestead. It's been crazy. When it's all said and done, we're shooting to have 10 cars per team and, right now, the guys are working their tails off on the fifth car (per team), so we've been working like crazy all year and we're only halfway on our inventory. It's been a madhouse. We're hoping we can get through Daytona and the West Coast portion of the schedule without wrinkling any fenders."
Any time you damage racecars, it's a bad thing. But how important is it to get through the first few races unscathed, given that the team is still building up the fleet?
"It'll be big. The good thing about having three teams is that you'd like to think if you're going to have some problems, it'd only be with one team and not the other teams. So, if something happens, you've got a little wiggle room to pull from another team. That's the good thing about a multi-car team is that you've got some wiggle room to pull from. But, our record for Joe Gibbs Racing at Las Vegas isn't great. We've killed probably four race cars at Vegas in the last three years. You take them home and you just have to chop them up and throw them away, they're so bad. You always know that is out there and that can happen. We do get a week off after Vegas before Bristol, but it's not like we're caught up, either. So, if any of the teams - the 11, the 18 or the 20 - have any struggles at Phoenix or Vegas, it could put us in a pinch. Right now, our guys are working 10-hour days during the week and then another eight to nine hours on Saturdays, so it's not like you've got much more time in the week to produce new racecars."
How has your team adjusted to the new fueling rules, which eliminated the catch can man?
"It's different. It's slower. It's a lot slower. So, then you think about what you can do to pick up time on pit road. And you run into some other obstacles, which everyone is going to because it's a new system. You never really know what might bite you until you get into race conditions. But I feel like the guys have done their homework enough in practice that they're going to be as prepared as the next guy. But I'm concerned about it, at the same time, because you don't have any history with this system. So you don't really know what can happen. I remember when they started this in the Truck Series and they had to figure it out and they had some bugs. I think the system has improved just because the Truck Series used it for a season. So, that allowed everyone to look at the system and revise it a little bit. I think we'll be in decent shape. We'll be as good as anybody and, if something happens, it won't be one of those things you'll have been able to duplicate at the shop."
There is a new-style car, a new fueling system and new pavement at Daytona. Have you ever been in a situation where there are so many unknowns going into a season?
"Not really. It's almost like you're starting over with everything. We had a few races last year with the new car and that's a huge help. But, going to Daytona, none of your old notes are going to work because it's a new car, the track has been paved, and then you throw the fuel system on top of that, you just have so many new things you have to look at. I'm more concerned about Phoenix and Vegas than I am Daytona. Just because those are the types of tracks we haven't been at, yet (with the new car). Vegas is somewhat similar to Charlotte and I think we'll be OK, there, because we ran the new car at Charlotte last year. Phoenix is a different animal. You're going to go out there and the schedule is pretty tight, so it's not like you have a lot of extra time to work on your car. The first three races, I think it's going to come down to the team that can react the quickest and is prepared for the unknown. You have to be overly prepared because you don't know what to expect. At least the (Sprint) Cup guys got to go to Daytona and I haven't heard any horror stories, so I think we'll be in decent shape for that one."