HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – It’s almost time for Halloween and, for Kyle Busch, there are memories of a time when not many things were spookier than having to make one of his semiannual visits to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
That’s because, during a three-race stretch starting in the spring of 2008, the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver who will sport a special M&M’s Halloween Fun Packs paint scheme for Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 never finished better than 24th at the .526-mile paperclip-shaped oval.
Busch’s fortunes at Martinsville began to turn around with a solid fourth-place finish in the fall of 2009, and then came new crew chief Dave Rogers. In March 2010, during his first full season under Rogers’ guidance, Busch was running second at Martinsville when a late-race caution forced a decision by the No. 18 team to pit late in the race, costing precious track position. On the ensuing restart, the Las Vegas native made contact with Paul Menard and was ultimately forced to settle for a 22nd-place finish. Although it was a hugely disappointing end to the weekend, Busch and Rogers left with the feeling they were capable of winning at Martinsville. They backed it up with a solid fourth-place run that October.
In his next trip to the tricky Virginia short track in April of 2011, Busch led a race-high 151 laps before scoring his career-best Martinsville finish of third. Indeed, Busch felt like the M&M’s team kept getting closer to that elusive win at Martinsville with each return. And it looked like last October would finally be the breakthrough run as Busch led a race-high 126 laps, but a late-race multi-car accident relegated him to a 27th-place finish. An early race accident this past April derailed another Martinsville bid for Busch as he placed 36th.
Of the 23 venues that will host Sprint Cup events in 2012, Busch has won at least once at 20 of those venues in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions – Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck. Martinsville is one of only three current Sprint Cup tracks – Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway being the others – where Busch has not scored a victory in any of NASCAR’s top three series. He does have back-to-back runner-up finishes at Martinsville in his last two Truck Series outings in October 2010 and April 2011.
As the Sprint Cup Series returns to Martinsville for another Halloween weekend celebration, will it mean a trick, or a treat, for Busch this Sunday? Despite the lack of a grandfather clock – the famed first-place prize at Martinsville – in his trophy case, Busch has reason to believe it might finally be time for those pesky tricks to turn to treats.
You’ve had good racecars at Martinsville the last few seasons, even though the results don’t necessarily do them justice. How have you been able to improve at Martinsville? “I think the biggest strides of improvement have come from just working with Denny (Hamlin, teammate) and really getting his knowledge of how to get around the place. He’s very good there. Learning his technique a little bit and getting to drive his cars. When I would go there years ago, we would run my setup and kind of go on our own way. But, more recently, it’s just been to put in whatever the 11 (Hamlin) has got and then figure it out. That’s really helped us.”
Is Martinsville a racetrack where you have to show a lot of patience?
“For sure. It’s certainly a racetrack that you can be leading the race and think you’ve got a shot to win the thing in the last 30 laps and then getting beat on from behind and getting moved out of the way. We did that. It’s certainly a racetrack that’s indicative that, if you’re just a little bit off, then the guys are going to be right on your rear bumper and trying to get by you. For us, it’s been a challenge but we’re getting better at it and learning some more as we go along. We would like to be able to continue that there this weekend.”
Is it possible to make it through a Martinsville race unscathed? “There are some guys there who can run around Martinsville and not have a mark on their car when the race is all said and done and they finish in a good spot. My first couple times there, I think I had every corner ripped off of it and was finishing in the 20s and then I finally figured out what to do and how to do it and then I started running well and picking up some top-fives a little bit and not having a mark on the car. It seems it’s easier when you’re a little bit better or you’re a little bit smarter, when you know who you’re racing and when you’re car’s good to come out of there with a good day and not be torn up too much. There’s always some times where somebody just wants to drive into you for something to do and move you out of the way and cause some chaos. You’ll have those moments, too, at Martinsville.”
What is the key to you getting a win at Martinsville? “I’d like to think we’re really close. We’ve been good there – last spring we ran really good. We ran third and led a lot of laps. We ran up front and toward the end of the race, I just didn’t quite have enough forward bite off the corners. I think (Dale Earnhardt) Junior got by me and then (Kevin) Harvick got by me. It’s a tough racetrack and, anytime you come in the pits and make an adjustment on your car, you certainly hope it goes the right way, or you make enough of it, or you don’t make too much of an adjustment. It seems like I haven’t quite scienced that out for the last run there. The last run can be tricky, too, because you can be coming off a 50-lap run on right-side tires and take four and you’ve only got 30 (laps) to go, or you could have 80 to go and you know you have to manage that run all the way to the end. It’s something that those guys – I would say Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson), Jeff (Gordon) – are the best at doing that and knowing how hard to push for exactly how many laps, where I have to work on that.”
Your racecar is sporting the special M&M’s Halloween paint scheme again this week. What was your favorite Halloween costume you wore as a kid? “Actually, one year I went as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I think that was my favorite costume as a kid. I was Michelangelo and I even had the fake nunchuk. One year, I was a football player and, one year, I even dressed up as Jeff Gordon since he was my favorite racecar driver when I was a kid.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, what do you remember about Halloween and trick-or-treating? “It was always cold in Las Vegas during Halloween, even though it can be really hot most of the year. I guess the biggest memory was going out to everyone’s house and trick-or-treating and hanging out with friends as a group. Sometimes, people wouldn’t be home, so they had a bucket out and you would reach in and grab whatever you wanted out of the bucket. It was all about how much candy you could collect, not necessarily about how much you would eat when you got home.”
What was your favorite kind of candy? “Mainly, everyone always had the fun packs. Back then, which wasn’t that long ago, the fun size pack of M&M’s was always really popular, and I’m sure that hasn’t changed too much, even now.”