HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – As Kyle Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry team shipped off from Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) Huntersville, N.C., race shop to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season-opening Daytona 500, the only thing truly known is that there are plenty of unknowns.
That’s because the Sprint Cup series is introducing its highly anticipated sixth-generation (Gen-6) racecar during the annual kickoff to the season at Daytona. Despite the unknowns teams face with a new car, Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers can only hope to come out of the gate like Busch did with the previous-generation Sprint Cup car in 2008. That was Busch’s first season with JGR and it was one that would serve as the breakout year many expected from Busch after three full Sprint Cup seasons at rival Hendrick Motorsports. That year, Busch wheeled his No. 18 Toyota Camry to eight Sprint Cup wins, 17 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s, and made new partner M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies a regular visitor to victory lane.
More encouraging news for Busch and Company: despite the disappointment of missing last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, the M&M’s team showed over the course of the last 10 Chase races it will be a force to be reckoned with in 2013. During those 10 races, Busch posted seven top-fives, eight top-10s, and led a whopping 864 laps to finish off the season as strong as he ever has in his eight previous Sprint Cup campaigns.
The 2013 Sprint Cup season warms up with Saturday night’s non-points-paying Sprint Unlimited, where Busch is the defending race winner, continues through next week’s Gatorade Duels, and begins in earnest Feb. 26 with the 55th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
So while Busch and the M&M’s team know there are many unknowns with the Gen-6 racecar, he’s hoping to take a page out of his playbook from the beginning of 2008, coupled with the momentum of his last 10 races of 2012 in hopes of bringing home his first Daytona 500 win and the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What do you need to improve for 2013? “We just need some luck on our side. Realistically, most times you win a championship, you have to have it all together. You have to have good equipment. You have to be a good, smart racer. You have to have your crew chief making good calls, but you also have to have some racing luck go your way. You look at the Chase last year – along with having all of those other things, Brad Keselowski had some racing luck. He missed my wreck at Kansas when he was right behind me. He missed the wreck (Jeff) Gordon and (Clint) Bowyer were in at Phoenix, and some other incidents, too. You’ve got to have some of that go your way in order to win these things and it’s not something you can control. It’s just a matter of the racing gods looking down on you.”
How motivated are you to make the Chase this year? “I’m not here to make a check – I’m here to work hard and I’m here to win and bring home trophies and championships. That’s my ultimate dream. I don’t know whether it’s the Lord upstairs just making me wait, or what. Even if I did win one championship, I’m not done, I’m not leaving – I still want to win more. You still have that same hunger and drive to get as many as you can. It just plays out as it does, sometimes. Sometimes it’s your year and sometimes it’s not your year. You can kind of see it as it progresses into week 22, 23, 24 throughout a season as to whose year it’s exactly going to be.”
What do you think of the new 2013 Camry Gen-6 racecar? “I like it. I think it’s fun and our M&M’s Camry looks awesome. It definitely has some different tendencies and some different attributes than the old car. They’re still the same chassis and it’s still a COT (Car of Tomorrow) – it’s called the Gen-6. All we did was re-do the shell. All the safety features are still in there and we actually added more safety features to it with three new bars that are in the chassis. So far they drive well, 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. At Daytona, the shorter spoilers and the less downforce package we have there made for some tense moments, I guess you’d say. I guess we’ll see how it ends up with a 40-car pack.”
What does new teammate Matt Kenseth bring to Joe Gibbs Racing? “Matt’s (Kenseth) a great competitor and I’ve known him for years. He was my brother’s teammate, of course, when Kurt (Busch) came into the sport at Roush (Fenway Racing). I’ve had a little side relationship with him over the years off the track. Now that it gets to be more on track, we get to work with one another. He and I race Late Models sometimes. I race with his kid in Late Models and things. Matt’s really good at the feel of the car and explaining the car and things like that. Hopefully, he can really tell us what some of the significant differences are from the Roush stuff to the Joe Gibbs Racing stuff, which has been good so far. We’ve had some communications about that here since we’ve had a couple test sessions and I can only look forward to working with him throughout the race weekends.”
How important is the Sprint Unlimited race to learn the draft in the new car? “I think, anytime we ever go down to Daytona, whether it’s with the new car or whether it’s with a different rules package or what have you, we always look at that Sprint Unlimited race as a race to watch to see exactly what’s going to happen and what characteristics you have in your racecar and things. It’s a learning experience for everybody, whether you’re in the race or whether you’re out of the race and not in it. For us, we’re curious to see how the car is going to race and how it’s going to handle and what it’s going to react like. I think what’s going to be most confusing, or a little chaotic, is all the changes happening throughout the race with the fan votes and everything. I think that’s exciting for the fans. I think that’s a neat thing Sprint brings. I’m excited to see how all that plays out.”
DAVE ROGERS, Crew Chief of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
After getting to work on the Gen-6 racecar, what are your impressions of the new Toyota Camry as you head to Daytona? “NASCAR did a great job of policing the development of the 2013 cars. They spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel making sure manufacturers would not get an advantage. There will be discrepancies – maybe one manufacturer will perform a little better at a speedway, one a little better at a downforce track – but I think NASCAR has done a great job of policing it. I’m not looking for an excuse. We are going to go out there and perform.”
How tightly have you been working with Toyota on the development of the new car? “Toyota has been a great partner and they’ve provided a tremendous amount of resources and they listen to you when you tell them what you think you need at the racetrack. They go back to the shop, they work on it and they deliver it. We feel that is the advantage of working with Toyota. With having two teams like Michael Waltrip Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing – that’s becoming a bigger advantage as we go. The teams are starting to get to know each other a little bit. We’re starting to share more information and both us and MWR know that the more we share, the smarter both groups are going to be and the faster we’ll perform.”
Now that it has been announced that Kyle is locked in long-term at JGR, how does that help the M&M’s race team to start the season? “Kyle (Busch) and I are great friends on and off the track and we have a lot of one-on-one talks and I never got the impression that he was seriously looking at going elsewhere. The only thing he told me was, ‘Hey, I want to focus on racing during the season and would rather focus on the contract in the offseason. I’m not going anywhere and you’re not going anywhere, so let’s not worry about it.’ That wasn’t a big deal for us. I was confident we would be back here together this year.”
What kind of racing are we to expect out of the new Gen-6 cars at Daytona and beyond? “That is certainly the goal and the goal that NASCAR and all the race teams had and the manufacturers was to build racecars that would allow a car to start in the back and move to the front. That’s what our fans want to see. They want to see side-by-side action. They want to see the fastest car win the race. They won’t want to see follow-the-leader. This isn’t a parade, it’s a race. All the teams and NASCAR worked really hard to produce that. We need to get to the racetrack before we honestly answer that. We believe that is the direction we’ve gone and we hope that’s the direction we’ve gone and I’m confident NASCAR will make changes if it’s not. I really like the way this car is balanced compared to last year’s car. The Toyota Camry is a tighter aero balance getting into the corner and free in the center – what is the worst thing for a crew chief to fight? Loose in and tight in the center. I think, in terms of aero balance, the car is more racey.”