Joe Gibbs Racing press release
Wild Card Weekend
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (Oct. 18, 2011) – Each January, the National Football League (NFL) opens its playoffs with what is called “Wild Card Weekend” as four teams that did not win their division but still made the playoffs get the chance to advance toward their ultimate goal, a Super Bowl championship.
For Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), this is wild card weekend for him and his fellow competitors participating in this year’s version of the “NASCAR Playoffs,” the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Being a Las Vegas native, Busch might know a thing or two about wild cards. But, heading into this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, there probably isn’t a track on the circuit that presents as much of an unknown as the mammoth 2.66-mile oval. And, as he sits in fourth place in the Chase standings, just 18 points behind series leader Carl Edwards, Busch knows this could be a weekend that could make or break his year, or that of his fellow playoff participants.
Busch has conquered Talladega just once in his career, his lone win coming in April 2008. In 13 starts at the track, he only has three other top-15 finishes and four Talladega outings that ended in an accident. So, the talented 26-year-old knows the winner of Sunday’s 500-mile race will need to have a strong car and be lucky in order to survive the seemingly inevitable multicar accident on NASCAR’s longest track.
As if the challenges of past years weren’t enough for teams to navigate, a completely new style of restrictor-plate racing made the scene at this year’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway thanks to a new front bumper that replaced what was an important but fragile front splitter on Sprint Cup cars. With that front-end design change came a whole new phenomenon of racing at restrictor-plate tracks. Until this year, the typical race at Daytona and Talladega would feature lengthy lines of cars that would bunch together, mere inches apart. The new look to restrictor-plate racing, as seen twice already at Daytona and this past spring at Talladega, involves cars running in pairs, almost as if the rear of the lead car is connected to the front bumper of the car following.
To make matters even more interesting this weekend, NASCAR recently introduced rule changes for the restrictor-plate tracks in an effort to break up the two-car drafts and get back to the long lines of cars that fans would rather see. Among those changes, a larger restrictor-plate opening was instituted in an effort to facilitate more horsepower, and a recalibrated pressure-relief valve for the engine cooling system aims to keep cars from being able to push the car in front of them as long without overheating. Many competitors still expect to see at least some two-car tandem racing, but the jury is still out until the cars hit the track for practice on Friday.
The bottom line for Busch and the M&M’s Halloween Toyota team, however, continues to be the fact their fate still depends on other drivers – oftentimes not even their JGR teammates – if they are to find success at Talladega this weekend.
If Busch has learned anything at the restrictor-plate tracks, it’s that he must be good to be lucky. He’s comforted in knowing he has exceptional equipment underneath him, thanks to the No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota provided to him by JGR. He also knows he’ll need to slice and dice and find the right draft partner to help him avoid the multicar melees Talladega is known for if he is to repeat his lone triumph there from three years ago.
So, as NASCAR prepares for its version of “Wild Card Weekend,” Busch hopes to survive another Talladega race as unscathed as humanly possible, then head to the final four-race stretch of the Chase with a solid shot at bringing home his first Sprint Cup championship.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Do you expect the changes at Talladega this weekend to provide different racing?
“No, I don’t expect anything much different. They’ve changed some of the cooling things again. They’ve changed the pop-off valve again, the radiator size I think, too – or that’s next year’s change, I don’t know. With the restrictor plate, they’ve changed, as well, too. There are certainly some things they’re trying to do to separate us and get us apart from each other, which is fine. I don’t have a problem with that one bit. I actually like it. As far as Talladega goes, are we going to see much different of a race? Probably not. Maybe just a little bit more swapping in-between cars, that’s it.”
Does being a former race winner at Talladega offer you any sort of advantage over the competition?
“It doesn’t matter at all. It’s such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from.”
Who is your favorite drafting partner at Talladega?
“I don’t know, since things are so different this year than in the past. I’ve drafted well with a lot of people over the past, but I would say (Juan Pablo) Montoya helped me win the race I won at Talladega a couple of years ago. Jimmie (Johnson) is always pretty good to draft with. My brother (Kurt Busch), as well, but many more than that. It just all depends on which other cars end up working well with your car. Aside from our teammates, we had about another 10 guys who we thought would work with us in our radio at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year, so I’ll expect we will figure out what other car works well with our car during practice and the first part of the race.”
Are superspeedways more mentally draining than other racetracks?
“At Talladega, the physical demand isn’t that big of deal. You can run around here all day long and not break a sweat, really. Once you get down into the nitty gritty of the race and try to play the chess game that goes on all day, you’ve got to really pick and choose your spots, and thinking all the time if you go here and team up with this guy. It really wears on you a little bit, mentally. The other thing, too, is when you’re in the two-car draft and you’re pushing each other, you’re more worried about not spinning that guy out than anything else. You just don’t want to do that. So, you’re up on edge most of the time just making sure you don’t get to that guy’s left side of center of his rear bumper and cause him to turn sideways. I don’t know if you call it racing, or what to call it really, but it’s definitely a different dynamic at Talladega and Daytona now than what we’ve had in the past.”
Do you find having the other drivers on your radio distracting?
“No, it’s not really distracting. If you were at a 1.5-mile track or a short track or something like that, it would be distracting because you’d be hearing way too much stuff going on. With Talladega being the way Talladega and Daytona are, you definitely want to hear all that stuff. There are some guys I can flip over and talk to.”
What is it like visually being the second car in a two-car draft?
“You can’t see a whole lot. You can’t really see through the rear glass of a guy’s car because the way the sun hits it, even if it’s a cloudy day, you might not be able to see all the way through it. The spoilers are so high that your limited vision is so small, and you’re really not going to make out a whole lot if you even could see through it with the spoiler. You tend to try to look over the roof of a guy’s car through the corner and try to see what’s going to happen down the next straightaway. That’s when you rely on either the guy in front of you to talk to you through going around guys or passing guys, or you rely on your spotter. If you have that guy in your radio and you’re pushing that guy, he should be the one on the radio: ‘Okay, low, low, middle, middle, high, high.’ He kind of talks you to where you’re going so you can stay on him and not take a chance of spinning a guy out.”