Believe it or not, the NASCAR Cup Series season heads into the last race of the regular season at Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. There are 11 races remaining in the 2020 season – including the 10-race, 16-driver Cup Series playoffs. And after last weekend’s doubleheader at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, all the races in NASCAR’s top series have been made up after a 10-week hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the series on track to race at its originally scheduled venues on their originally scheduled dates starting this weekend.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), took the opportunity during last weekend’s Dover doubleheader to bring home finishes of third and 11th, respectively, which were good enough to lock him into this year’s playoffs despite still looking for his first win of the season. The assurance for Busch that he’s locked into the playoffs is a welcome one, as those on the playoff bubble will certainly have a nervous night with Daytona’s pack-style racing, where an accident not of a driver’s own doing can seal his fate and end his race in a hurry.
Ever since the 2.5-mile high-banked Daytona oval opened in 1959, the NASCAR Cup Series has competed at Daytona on Fourth of July weekend. From 1959 to 1997, the series competed on the morning of July 4, no matter what day of the week the holiday fell on. Starting in 1998, the event was moved to the first Saturday night in July after as lights made their debut at the World Center of Racing that season. But with the July 4 race moving to Indianapolis this year, Daytona moved its summer oval race to be the regular-season finale in late August. Saturday night’s 400-mile race will be the second time in the last three weeks the series has competed at Daytona, with an event on the road course two weeks ago replacing the traditional midsummer race at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.
Busch, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, knows he will not only need to beat his fellow competitors, but also the Florida summer heat. This part of the season happens to be the hottest for Cup Series competitors, with select race venues seeing record temperatures, and also for those who are heading out on their late-summer road trips. The summer months can be taxing on both man and machine, whether it’s on the highway or at the track. Caring for the latter is one of the ways JGR founding partner Interstate Batteries leverages its NASCAR program, reminding consumers to have their batteries checked during the hot summer months at a local dealer prior to their summer road trips.
Busch is certainly no stranger to victory lane in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, having won the July 2008 race behind the wheel of – yes – the Interstate Batteries Toyota. The Las Vegas native has fared much better in his summer races at Daytona during his career, when the track is much more slick thanks to Florida’s summer heat. He has five top-five finishes in his 16 July starts at the track.
With all of that on his side, Busch hopes to have a strong car and track position in pack-style racing, where a driver not only has to be good, but must have good fortune to go along with it. He would like nothing more than to head into the playoffs in the best way possible – by bringing the Interstate Batteries green lightning paint scheme to victory lane Saturday night. With the final countdown to the end of the regular season, Busch and his Interstate Batteries team will not only look to beat the Florida heat, but finally recharge the batteries and get back to his favorite place – victory lane.
Is Daytona still a special racetrack for you?
“Daytona is cool – a lot more in February than in the summer just because it is the Daytona 500 versus the July or August race. For us, you still want to win everywhere you go, every single week. To win at Daytona is always cool. It’s definitely special. It’s the birthplace of NASCAR – the superspeedway aspect of it. I definitely love going there. It’s hot, it’s slick, and you can make the most out of yourself as a driver and what you’ve got in the car. We won there in 2008 and I’m hoping we can get a win with our Interstate Batteries Camry this weekend. Interstate Batteries has quite the legacy with JGR and I’m always proud to represent those guys, so we hope to get a win for Norm (Miller, Interstate Chairman).”
What do you do to prep for the night race at Daytona?
“It’s going to be a hot one. Right now, it’s all about getting your fluids back in you throughout the entire week. You’re not going to get them all back in one or two nights. It’s going to take the entirety of a week. You’ll start over again after that race. It’s Daytona. A lot of different planning goes into that.”
When you look at guys who have won superspeedway races in the last few years, it seems there are those who win more often than not. Why are they winning more at the two superspeedways?
“You’ve got to be good, but there’s still a lot of luck involved. You’ve got to be out front. When your cars are fast, you need to do a good job, you know how to lead it, get yourself through traffic, you’ll be out front a lot of the time. The 2 car (Brad Keselowski) is very hard to pass, he’s very fast. When those guys are out front, they seem to be able to control the race. So hard to hold those fast cars back, if you will. They do a good job of being able to predict the lines and how they build the inertia and everything behind them.”
What are your thoughts on NASCAR being one of the only sports in this pandemic to get back on track and get the full season in?
“It’s really, really good. It’s great actually for all the teams, all the ownership, the pressure of trying to meet sponsor demands, things like that. There are a lot of things coming down the pipeline for I guess just the economics of it all. There’s a lot to look at. Joe Gibbs is doing a great job of working all of his sponsors, myself included with M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Toyota, Rheem, Sport Clips. Also, it’s great we’re able to get on TV, have the revenue of that to keep ourselves going, to have the paychecks for all the employees to keep them employed back at the shops, making sure we can finish out the season, get onto the next season hopefully with normal conditions.”
What are some of the better safety improvements you’ve seen in the last couple of years?
“I think, of course, the things Daytona has done with the SAFER Barrier along the whole outside and inside of the racetrack. There are too many different areas on these racing surfaces where we can get out of control and crash into things. We’ve seen that over the years – I think most notably maybe Mark Martin at Michigan a while ago, getting caught on that inside pit wall. We tend to find about anywhere to hit, so it’s just a matter of trying to protect ourselves, as well as the race fans and our crew members, as best as possible.”