HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – In the world of professional sports, getting to play a home game on your turf usually turns out to be an advantage.
While Las Vegas native Kyle Busch has lived near the NASCAR epicenter of Charlotte, N.C., for quite some time, he’ll still think of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as a home game in his quest to score his first win of the young season.
Busch, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), returns home for the 267-lap event around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas tri-oval. Having tasted victory at his hometown racetrack in the 2009 Sprint Cup race, Busch and the No. 18 M&M’s team know first-hand the kind of luck, coupled with the usual abundance of hard work, they’ll need to come up with a winning hand once again Sunday.
The 2009 victory was monumental for Busch and the No. 18 team, to say the least.
Busch, a 2002 honors graduate of Las Vegas’ Durango High School, qualified on the pole but was forced to start at the rear of the field because the team needed to change engines during Friday practice. Unfazed, Busch remained patient on race day as he and the M&M’s team worked their way to the front of the field by the 54th lap. Busch went on to lead three times for 51 laps en route to claiming what he called at the time the biggest win of his young career.
That win was special. But Busch already was no stranger to winning on the grounds of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. From 1999 to 2001, he earned more than 65 wins in Legends cars while racking up two track championships at the facility’s “Bullring,” which existed for several years before the 1.5-mile oval was built. Busch eventually moved up to Late Model Stock cars, and his winning ways continued as he captured 10 victories in Late Model competition at the Bullring in 2001.
With disappointing finishes of 34th and 23rd, respectively, during the first two races of the season at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway, Busch will look to capitalize on his home-track advantage this weekend and point his season in the right direction.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Is there more pressure racing at your hometown track? “Yeah, Vegas always means a little bit more pressure – more pressure on myself – just because it’s the hometown and you want to win there. Thankfully, I have won there and I’ve knocked that one off the list, but certainly you want to win there every year. It seems like either Carl (Edwards) or Jimmie (Johnson) are better than most, but I love Vegas, the atmosphere and everything going on around that place. It’s always been a big race for us and the M&M’s team.”
What was it like to bring home a Sprint Cup win in your hometown in 2009? “It was cool. To go out there and to run a smooth race and to have a shot at winning at the end of the race, that’s what it’s all about. I watched Vegas being built from the ground up, and I remember when it wasn’t anything but a gleam in the eye of Richie Clyne (founder of Las Vegas Motor Speedway) – all those guys who made that place happen.”
Where does that 2009 win rank among your career wins? “It was the biggest at the time, but the triple at Bristol ranks up there now, too, along with winning the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky a few years back. It was awesome in 2009, though – just the feeling of a lifetime. I told everyone it would be just like another race, but it really meant a lot more than that when I got to victory lane. To have my mom there, and my brother come to victory lane, just made it that much more special. We didn’t have the best car in 2009, but I feel like I drove a smart race, anyway, and did what we needed to do. We worked on it all day and kept making it better.”
You have some extended track time at Las Vegas, and it’s the first race weekend with the new 2013 Toyota Camry on a mile-and-a-half track. What do you expect this weekend? “I think I’m expecting that we really don’t know what to expect. How the car raced at Phoenix will be much different when we get to Vegas. We’ll try to use the Thursday test day, and the rest of the practices, as best we can and learn as much as we can about this new car. So far, they drive good. They put more downforce to them. We haven’t really gotten into a pack yet with the mile-and-a-half stuff to see how they lead and follow. We’ve always qualified well at Vegas, and I’m hoping we can keep that going and have some good track position to start the race with our M&M’s Camry.
Having grown up in Las Vegas, do you still have a lot of friends in the area? Do you get a lot of ticket requests from friends and family? “I get a lot of ticket requests for California, Vegas and Phoenix – all the West Coast stops that we run. It’s kind of hard to fulfill all of them, but we try when we can. We get to go to M&M’s World on the (Las Vegas) Strip to sign some autographs on Thursday, so I’m looking forward to seeing some of the hometown fans there, as well.”
Are you able to enjoy trips to your hometown? “It’s fine going back there. There’s really not much family out there. It’s just family friends. There are a lot of friends you get to see and catch up with that you text back-and-forth or talk back-and-forth with during the year, but you never get to see them, so that’s always cool to go out there to the race. Besides that, there are the different appearances we do for M&M’s. You get to go to some of the restaurants that you liked there growing up, so that’s always cool. It’s just another weekend, but I particularly know my way around this city better than I do any other place.”
What is your fondest racing memory of growing up in Las Vegas? “My fondest racing memory is probably my first Late Model race. I started about eighth or 10th and ended up winning it. My first-ever start, I won. So that is definitely a great memory to have.”