HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - The two races contested in 2008 at Atlanta Motor Speedway were very kind to Kyle Busch.
In March of that year, Busch raced all the way to victory lane at Atlanta, ending a 147-race drought for Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) No. 18 team and notching the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Toyota as a manufacturer, as well as his first of 20 total NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins for JGR.
In October 2008, Busch continued his strong season at Atlanta as he brought home a solid fifth-place finish.
In the five Sprint Cup races contested at Atlanta since 2008, however, the 1.5-mile oval has not been too kind to Busch and the No. 18 team, with only one top-10 finish to their credit.
With that in mind, the driver of the No. 18 Doublemint® Toyota Camry for JGR and his entire team will be rolling up their sleeves and getting to work this Labor Day weekend in hopes of rekindling some of that 2008 magic at Atlanta as the series returns for Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500.
An Atlanta resurgence would come at a very opportune time for Busch, who hopes to protect the wild-card berth he currently holds into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship with two races remaining before the Chase begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
Only the top-10 in points are locked into the 12-driver, 10-race Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. In the event of multiple drivers having the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
The talented 27-year-old jumped back into the final wild-card spot after his sixth-place finish Saturday night at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Busch’s victory on April 28 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, combined with his 13th position in the point standings – which is higher than his fellow single-race winners in the top-20 in points – Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and JGR teammate Joey Logano – has earned him a Chase berth for the time being.
While a win á lá March 2008 would certainly be a boost for Busch’s Chase hopes, he knows just a solid run could well put him in the driver’s seat.
With one of his best racetracks coming up next weekend at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, where his average finish is a series-best 4.7, Busch and the Doublemint team are highly motivated to go to work in Atlanta on Labor Day weekend bent on improving their recent results there. They don’t necessarily have to repeat their 2008 victory, by any means, but it sure could make the following weekend’s visit to Richmond for the final regular-season race a whole lot less stressful.
Do you think you have a good chance to make the Chase? “I would certainly like to think we can make the Chase and we’d have the opportunity to do so, but that’s all we can do. I can’t sit here and tell you how much we deserve to be in the Chase or anything else. Atlanta hasn’t been one of our best tracks, recently, but this team is going to work hard this weekend to change that. If we can have a solid run with our Doublemint Camry, we can look toward Richmond, where we have a good record and hope we can get into the Chase. It’s either going to come or it’s not. It’s that simple.”
Are you happy with how the team running is running right now? “We’ve been really fast – we’ve had fast racecars, which I’ve been excited about. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and the guys have done a really nice job of putting together some good stuff. It’s just that stupid things keep happening. We made the most out of last weekend at Bristol even though we didn’t hit it there like we have in the past. All we can do is control what we can and hope things fall into place for us the next two races.”
Is your preparation different for a night race? “For me, yeah you prepare a little bit differently. It’s a night race, so it’s not so hot. You don’t have to do as much as you might for a day race with cooling and everything inside the car, but it still will be a warm one, for sure. For me, it’s just about the whole week ahead of time. You’ve got to stay hydrated and make sure you keep yourself from cramping up or something like that. With the hot weekends we get out here, that could certainly be a challenging aspect. I’ve done it before and I’ll probably still do it again.”
What does it take to be successful at Atlanta? “It takes a lot of things. You have to have a lot of grip, you have to have a lot of downforce, you have to have tire management, a great engine, and fuel mileage, too. There are a lot of circumstances it can come down to at the end and what it will boil down to.”
What are your memories of racing in Atlanta? “I’ve won a few Truck Series races there. That was fun. I have not won a Nationwide race there. I finished second three or four times, so it’s been an Achilles heel for me, I guess. The Cup races there, I’ve either been really good or mediocre or really bad. There have been times where I’ve been really good throughout the event. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t seem to keep the grip in my car for the long haul, as long you need throughout a run. I’m really fast for the first five, eight laps. But, after that, I seem to slip more than anyone else.”
What challenges does the day-to-night format present at Atlanta in the Sprint Cup race? “Certainly, we practice all during the day, so the daytime practice is easy for the beginning of the race, but how the racetrack picks up speed and certainly gets faster throughout the night and, of course, the balance can change a little bit. With the speed getting faster, certainly the loads change a little bit for you, so you have to be conscious of that. The crew chiefs are good at what they do and that’s why they get paid the big bucks – to try to figure out what best suits the cars for nighttime, because that’s when the race ends. Certainly, you want to be good at night.”
What did you think of the speed at Atlanta the first time you raced there? “My first time there was 2003 in a Nationwide Series car and it was definitely fast. It’s all relative. You run the same speed around everybody and it really doesn’t feel that fast, so it feels like you do anywhere else, whether you’re at Las Vegas or Chicago or Kansas or any of those places.”