HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – There’s just no place like home for Las Vegas native Kyle Busch. But, there is a close second.
While Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), relishes each chance to visit his desert hometown, there’s yet another desert destination that ranks as next-best for Busch.
Where might that be? Of course, it’s Phoenix International Raceway, site of Sunday’s penultimate stop on the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign, the Advocare 500k.
Located just 300 miles to the south and east of his hometown of Las Vegas, the likewise desert setting of Phoenix has been a favorite place to wheel a racecar long before Busch joined the Sprint Cup ranks. And the results have certainly shown, starting with a solid eighth-place finish in his very first outing there in the spring of 2005, followed by just his second career Sprint Cup victory in his very next start there in the fall race that year. Coincidentally enough, his first Sprint Cup win came just 10 races prior in another desert-like setting – Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
In 15 Sprint Cup starts at the mile oval known as the “Diamond in the Desert,” Busch has one win and nine top-10 finishes, including four in a row from the spring 2007 through fall 2008 events, and he won the pole for the spring 2006 race. Busch was in position to win both Sprint Cup races at Phoenix in 2010, as well as the February 2011 event, but things never fell his way.
Add four victories, six top-five finishes, nine top-10s and three poles in Busch’s 13 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts, and a pair of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins in the fall 2007 and spring 2011 events, and it’s no wonder Busch relishes every opportunity to compete at his desert home away from home. With numbers like that, who wouldn’t?
Even better news for Busch and his M&M’s team this weekend is the hot streak they are riding into the Arizona desert. Despite not being a Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship competitor, Busch and his M&M’s team have been quite impressive in the eight Chase races thus far as he has accrued 274 points – fifth-most points among all series drivers. In the last eight races, Busch has scored five top-five finishes and six top-10s, and he’ll hope to continue the hot streak out West.
Just two races remain on the Sprint Cup calendar for 2012. And Busch sees Sunday’s 500-kilometer run at his home away from home as his first of two chances to finish off the season in victory lane and, more importantly, carry the strong momentum built over the past eight races to a bonafide championship-contending effort in 2013.
Do you believe your recent strong runs will provide momentum for 2013? “You’ve got to continue to work hard and strive to get better. For missing the Chase by what we did, yeah, we had a lot of technical problems, but I’m sure there were a few races where we could have finished better. So, we’ve got to get better every chance we get. These last 10 weeks have been pretty good. We’ve run well. We’ve been fast. We’ve shown speed. Maybe we’ve been third-to-fifth- or third-to-sixth-place cars. At Texas last weekend, I felt like we were a winning car if we could have gotten out front. I think track position meant that much, which we’ll say every week. It’s just a matter of continuing to evolve and getting better as a team and communicating, because this car is obsolete in less than two weeks. So we’ll work on all of that stuff in 2013.”
Do you think the surface has “aged” in Phoenix? “I hope it aged a little bit so then we can all race a little bit better. It was a little bit difficult to pass, it felt like, still, and getting into turn one was a little bit slick. I think that’s kind of always been the tradition at Phoenix. I haven’t heard much about the test and how it went out there. I think it should be a good one, hopefully, and we just need to get a little bit better. Denny (Hamlin) was pretty fast out there last time, so we’ll see if we can’t steal some more of their notes.”
How will Sunday’s race at Phoenix compare to the first race on the new surface there one year ago? “The first two races on the new surface were a little bit different than what we all expected. The way the race played out and the way the groove kind of widened out a little bit, it made it a bit racey. We expect some of that there this time but, hopefully, the conditions are a little cooler than a year ago so we can lay more rubber down and we can spread the groove out more and make for a good race. It seemed like you could run guys down, but it was a little hard to pass where, on the old surface, you could at least get guys to get a little loose or whatever, or start losing grip in their tires and start fading. Now, it’s just you running the same time all the time. It’s hard to get going.”
What does it take to be successful at Phoenix? “You’ve got to have a good car, but you’ve got to have good brakes. You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch. There’s a lot involved at Phoenix, but being only the third race on the new surface, it could make it interesting.”
In addition to three Nationwide Series wins at Phoenix, you also won in your second Sprint Cup start at the mile oval. Do you enjoy racing at Phoenix? “Phoenix is a pretty neat place, even though they made some changes with the repave last year. For some reason, I’ve always run well there. I don’t know if it’s that I’m comfortable being back close to home on the West Coast, or what. I always have a little more fan support out there, as well. As for the track itself, you have two distinctly different corners at Phoenix.”