HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – One look at Kyle Busch’s ever-growing trophy case reveals an assortment of trophies for his now 109 overall wins among NASCAR’s top three levels of competition, which includes 25 Sprint Cup Series wins. In fact, one entire trophy case features 13 trophies, alone, from the high-banked Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway half-mile oval.
But even though Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), has more trophies than he probably knows what to do with, there’s one glaring omission from another famous half-mile short track – the traditional, 7-foot-tall clock that Martinsville (Va.) Speedway president Clay Campbell’s late grandfather and track founder, H. Clay Earles, began awarding Martinsville race winners more than five decades ago.
Needless to say, Busch, has his sights set on getting that long-awaited maiden victory at Martinsville, the site of Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race after scoring his career-best finish there of second last October.
Of the 23 venues that will host Sprint Cup events in 2013, Busch has won at least once at 20 of those venues in at least one of NASCAR’s top three divisions – Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck. There are only three current Sprint Cup tracks – Martinsville, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway – where Busch has not scored a victory in any of NASCAR’s top three series.
Despite the lack of a Martinsville grandfather clock, Busch has plenty of reasons for optimism this weekend, considering how he has been able to pick up his game at the .526-mile paperclip-shaped oval ever since being paired with crew chief Dave Rogers.
During a three-race stretch starting when he joined Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) in the spring of 2008, the Las Vegas native never finished better than 24th at Martinsville. But Busch’s fortunes there began to turn around with a solid fourth-place finish in the fall of 2009.
Enter crew chief Rogers in March of 2010. During his first full season under Rogers’ guidance, Busch started a strong string of races at Martinsville with a fourth-place run in October 2010.
In his next trip to the tricky Virginia short track in March 2011, Busch led a race-high 151 laps before scoring his career-best Martinsville finish of third. And, in October 2011, he led another race-high 126 laps before being collected in an accident not of his own doing late in the race. Indeed, Busch feels like the M&M’s team keeps getting closer and closer to that elusive win at Martinsville with each return. Despite a blank in the win column, Busch has compiled a strong record of seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes in his 16 Sprint Cup starts there.
The M&M’s driver will hope to ride the wave of momentum generated by his first victory of the season two weekends ago at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. There, Busch led a race-high 125 laps and brought home the checkered flag in dramatic fashion as he slid to the outside of the dueling Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin coming off of turn four on the final lap.
He’ll hope that momentum continues as he aims for his first Martinsville grandfather clock after knocking on the door during several recent visits to the Southern Virginia short track.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What did it mean to get a win early in the season at Fontana knowing how last year turned out? “We worked so hard last year and we missed the Chase by three points. It sort of defines your season as missing the Chase. And then we go off and rattle off great finishes throughout the Chase but we never win. That weighed on both Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and my shoulders and, of course, being able to realize or understand if we could do this together or not. And then again, this year, we started out the season and we were running well at Daytona, we had a little issue there, and then Phoenix we had to start in the back. I tried to carry the deal on my shoulders and I messed up. And then we go to Vegas and run up front and lead some laps but we just didn’t have a good long-run car. Then, at Bristol, we had a good car and sped on pit road and got back in traffic and never really made our way back up to the front on good tires. At Fontana, we had the best car, led the most laps, and felt like it was our race to win but, in reality, it was our race to lose when all those guys kept pitting behind us and putting on tires. So we finally had a little bit of luck on our side that we didn’t have all last year and it seemed like we weren’t quite having this year. But we’ve had some good runs and some strong runs. It’s just that you’ve got to keep working.”
You’ve been so close to winning at Martinsville, lately. Are you hoping this weekend you can finally get that first win there? “I certainly hope so. We were so close last fall and right on Jimmie’s (Johnson) bumper for the win. I’ve led a bunch of laps there, but we just haven’t been able to hold it for the end of the 500 laps. 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. 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 but take it to the next level with a win for our M&M’s Camry team.”
Is Martinsville similar to any other short tracks you’ve raced on? “You say it’s similar probably just because the size of it being a half-mile, but Martinsville is not like any other racetrack that I’ve ever raced on. Not even close. Denny Hamlin would probably be able to assess that statement a little closer because he grew up at Southside (Speedway in Midlothian, Va.) and that is a lot closer to this place. Although it’s a quarter-mile, it’s flat and it’s like racing in a parking lot. For me, I’ve raced on three-eighths-mile, half-mile and three-quarter-mile racetracks all across the West and they were banked, they were flat, but nothing that was so conducive to heavy braking and all that kind of stuff. It’s certainly a challenge to figure out how to get around here and it makes it tough on you because the guys who are good here have run here for that many years. There’s always that transition period of younger guys coming in here and having to spend their time and cut their teeth and learn what it takes to run around this place. You’ve got the Harry Gants of the world or the (David) Pearsons of the world, and then you have the (Dale) Earnhardts, who come in and take a little while to get better at it and then they’re really good at the place. And you have the Jeff Gordons, who take a little time to get used to it. Then they are really good here. It just goes in cycles like that.”
What is it that makes Martinsville so different when it looks so similar to other short tracks? “Every track is different. There aren’t two racetracks out there that are the same. I would say probably the closest racetrack I grew up racing on was in San Bernardino, Calif. – it was Orange Show Speedway. That’s closest to what Martinsville is. I only ran Legends cars there, so it’s not a true telling. It was only a quarter-mile. It’s just a tough place because you’re so hard on brakes, but your minimum speed there – everybody’s is – the same, pretty much. Except, there are a couple of guys who will get a half-mile-an-hour faster through the center of the corner, and that is the difference between the pole speed and being dead last. You’re looking to find things that will make your car just that much faster there. You want to drive into the corner one foot deeper than that other guy. You want to step on the gas one foot sooner than that other guy and you want to roll a half-mile-an-hour better than that other guy. That’s why it’s so finicky and so hard there, because everybody runs so tight that, any little thing you can find, it can help a lot.”