AS NASCAR heads to California this weekend for what is the first of only two road courses on the Sprint Cup calendar, Lee Spencer speaks exclusively to 2015 champion Kyle Busch, whose victory last year at Sonoma proved the catalyst to kickstart his title charge.
Kyle Busch is a wheel man.
There are few drivers who possess his level of talent in NASCAR – or in any other form of motorsports, for that matter. But Busch proved last year that skill alone will take an athlete only so far.
After sustaining a compound fracture to his right leg and breaking his left foot in a vicious wreck at Daytona International Speedway in February of last year, Busch showed a tremendous amount of heart and determination to battle back from his injuries.
Two months after the accident, Busch said he was “in no rush” to return to the track. Although the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was not quite 30 at the time, Busch acknowledged there was plenty of racing ahead. Recovery, he said, was his top priority.
Yet, after missing the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season, Busch was back in action in May at the All-Star Race – long before the initial projection. Five weeks later, Busch returned to Victory Lane at Sonoma Raceway, after a remarkable drive at a physically demanding track.
“It’s been a year since we got that first win after coming back from injury – and it’s crazy that it’s only been a year,” Busch told Mobil1 The Grid. “I’m looking forward to going back there.
“Sometimes, it’s your day at Sonoma. It’s so hard. We’ve seen so many winners there in the past few seasons – I think 13 or 14 different winners. It’s all about who gets out front and who can hold off the rest of the guys behind him.”
Busch is being modest, considering the challenge. Early reports predicted Busch would return to competition at the July 2015 Daytona race, where the use of his left foot for braking would be minimal. In April, Busch was uncertain of what his level of tolerance would be with his foot.
Certainly, the driver known as ‘Rowdy’ pushed his limits that day in June, on the 1.99-mile road course. Busch started the race 11th, and worked his way into the lead in after 27 circuits, following the first restart. Although he relinquished the point to his brother (and pole sitter) Kurt, 12 laps thereafter, Busch regained the top spot from Jimmie Johnson on the race’s final restart and led the last five laps.
“It certainly took a lot of hard work and dedication to get back to that point; to get back in the race car and to be ready that soon,” Busch recounted. “But as difficult as that weekend was – as much as it hurt – making it to the end and winning that race, your body can overcome a lot of things if you put your mind to it.
“We did it at Sonoma, and it carried us through the rest of the year.”
The Sonoma win enabled Busch to overcome a major hurdle in his championship quest, qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup by winning a race.
The next challenge for Busch was climbing into the top 30 in points to meet the eligibility criteria established by NASCAR. While drivers are expected to compete in 26 point races to qualify for the Chase, Busch received a waiver from the sanctioning body after missing the first 11 races because of his accident.
Busch was 41st in the standings after his Charlotte return. His victory at Sonoma elevated the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team to 37th. The best way for Busch to gain max points? Win.
And he did.
Although Busch finished a mediocre 17th at Daytona the following week, the Adam Stevens-led crew went on a three-win streak at Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With six races left until the Chase cut-off, Busch was 32nd in the standings. His second-place finish at Watkins Glen – the series’ other road course – lifted Busch into the top 30 in points. One top-five and three top-10 finishes in the four races before the Chase carried Busch to 25th in the standings in just 15 races; and ahead of seven drivers who had competed in all 26 events.
Despite a couple of rough patches in the playoff – notably, a 37th-place finish at New Hampshire and 20th at Charlotte – Busch posted an average finish of fifth in the last two rounds. His victory at Homestead Miami in the season finale sealed Busch’s first Cup title.
Following a storybook season with five wins in 25 starts, Busch is the clear favourite to repeat in 2016. With three wins in the first 11 races, the most on the Cup tour, Busch is on pace to surpass his totals from last season. However, the last four races – where Busch finished 30th or worse at Dover, Charlotte, Pocono and Michigan – dropped Busch from second in the standings to ninth.
During a testing session at Kentucky Speedway on Monday, Busch said he was looking forward to having the next week off to “try to regroup and try to change our luck somehow.”
“I wish there was a store where I could buy some [luck], because I’m certainly out,” Busch said with a laugh. “But getting to Sonoma and going back out there, and hopefully having a decent run there… Sonoma is so hard to predict. There are so many things that can happen there. It’s kind of like a Martinsville-type short track, road course race where you can get knocked out of the way pretty easy.
“Track position means a lot there. I remember last year, we came in, got tires, restarted eighth and made our way to the front because a bunch of the other guys were on old tires. When you’re out front and you can run your own pace, you seem to be able to hold off those behind you. It is a track position race… We can do it. It’s just a matter of getting out of the funk.
“We just need to finish. Going to Sonoma, we just need to be able to get out of that race with all four fenders on it, and be able finish that event and start progressing our way to the front, where we know we can be. If we go out and win Sonoma, we may just say the curse is over, whatever it might be.”
Busch not only is a two-time winner at Sonoma, he’s the only duplicate winner at the track in the last 11 years. That’s a testament to the giant strides traditional stock car drivers have made in the road course realm.
On a road course, it doesn’t pay to bury a car into the turns as deeply as possible. Road racing is more subtle and nuanced, requiring a driver to back up one corner, for instance, to achieve maximum momentum perhaps two corners later.
But over the years, NASCAR drivers have mastered the road-racing skill set. That’s why the last 11 races at Sonoma have produced 10 different winners, from dirt-tracker Clint Bowyer, to road-racing ace Juan Pablo Montoya, all the way to the supremely talented Busch brothers.
And that, of course, is why road course races have become some of the most exciting and highly contested events on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Indeed, anything can happen come Sonoma on Sunday. But you wouldn’t bet against Kyle Busch, would you?