HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams spend more than two months during the offseason preparing for the season-opening and most prestigious race, the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
Despite all that preparation by the more than 43 Sprint Cup drivers, followed by 12-plus days spent in Daytona by those that go the distance, only one driver-and-team combination emerges victorious from the big race on the 2.5-mile superspeedway oval. It’s typically the driver and team that found the perfect blend of help from others on race day and a hefty dose of racing luck in the ultimate battle of restrictor-plate, big-pack competition. And that victorious driver and team is the only one that gets to hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy in racing’s most famous victory lane.
For Kyle Busch and the entire No. 18 M&M’s Toyota team for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), there’s Daytona, and then there’s the rest of the season. After Sunday’s 55th Daytona 500, the grueling, 36-race marathon-like schedule heads out West to the second race of the 2012 season – Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway.
Busch started the year on a high note by notching a win in his Budweiser Duel 150-mile qualifying race Feb. 21 at Daytona. But while challenging for the lead on lap 151 of Sunday’s 200-lap Daytona 500, his engine let go and he was sent to the garage early. While bitterly disappointed, Busch and the M&M’s team know there isn’t any time to sulk as the long season commences.
As they now head to the mile oval in Phoenix, Busch, crew chief Dave Rogers and the rest of the M&M’s team are comforted in knowing their fate is much more in their own hands. Handling and driver skill have much more to do with a team’s success at Phoenix than Daytona. The mile oval will be first real test of their new 2013 Toyota Camry, as NASCAR has moved to a new sixth-generation racecar (Gen-6) for all of its makes.
The Las Vegas native will hope to equal and better both February and November Phoenix performances in 2012, when he led 289 of the 631 total laps available to him. Circumstances at the end of both races kept him from Phoenix’s victory lane, where Busch paid his one and only visit during just his second Sprint Cup start there in November 2005.
In 16 Sprint Cup starts at the “Diamond in the Desert,” Busch has one win and 10 top-10 finishes, including four in a row in 2007 and 2008, and he won the pole for the spring 2006 race and the race last November.
This weekend, Phoenix marks the beginning of the rest of the season and the M&M’s team is already focused on gaining the wins and consistency it will need over the next 25 races in hopes of again joining the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
How will Sunday’s race at Phoenix compare to the first three races on the new surface? “The last couple of races there 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 so we can lay more rubber down and we can spread the groove out more and make for an even better 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.”
How do you feel about heading to Phoenix this week after having an up-and-down Speedweeks? “I’m glad to go back to a racetrack where drivers matter and car handling matters. I ran really well at Phoenix in both races last year, but I chose the wrong lane on the restart last November and ended up third. I think we led something like 230 laps and it was devastating to be that dominant and not come home with the trophy. I’m looking forward to getting back there, for sure. The best way to get over the disappointment of the Daytona 500 is to get back in the car and have another chance at winning the next one. I wish the race was today, to be honest. I’m ready. We’re hoping we can get our M&M’s Camry into victory lane there, finally, and dig our way out of the hole that the Daytona issue put us in.”
Now that you’ve made it through Daytona, how driven are you to recover from a tough outing and focus on the championship battle? “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 are what my ultimate dream is. 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 on whose year, exactly, it’s going to be.”
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 heading there with our new 2013 Toyota Camry without any testing there will be interesting to see how the race plays out.”
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. 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.”