It was the first race of the 10-race NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, and defending champion Kyle Busch and his M&M’S team began their quest for their third championship Sunday at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway with a seventh-place finish.
While a solid top-10 is a good start, the final result didn’t nearly tell the story of the race for Busch and his No. 18 team. The M&M’S driver looked to be headed for at least a runner-up finish when an untimely caution during a late-race pit cycle caused him to start farther back in the top-10. With track position so precious and no other caution to bunch up the field, the defending Cup Series champion fought hard for a seventh-place finish and now sits 10th in the playoff standings following the first of three playoff races in the Round of 16.
The good news for Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is that the two remaining races in this opening round of the playoffs are two of his favorites – Richmond (Va.) Raceway and Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Busch has a combined 14 wins at those two tracks so, when he says both tracks are favorites, his success at both backs it up.
Saturday night’s 400-mile race at Richmond is, oddly enough, the first race this season at the .75-mile short track. The revamped schedule resulting from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shifted Richmond’s traditional spring date to Darlington. Not surprisingly, Busch is chomping at the bit to get back to Richmond, where he has his best average finish of any track on the current schedule.
A quick look at Busch’s Cup Series statistics at Richmond shows six career victories – most among active drivers. In addition to those six career wins, Busch’s Richmond stat sheet shows 18 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s in 29 career starts, making him the most consistent active driver at the track.
The Las Vegas native also leads all active drivers in average finishing position at Richmond – 6.8. Next best is Kevin Harvick’s average finish of 7.9. Busch has completed all but one of the 11,629 laps available to him in his 29 Richmond starts. Of those, Busch has run in the top-15 for 10,347 laps, or 89 percent, which ranks second among active drivers.
Also, four of Busch’s six career Richmond wins came in consecutive spring races from 2009 to 2012, besting Richard Petty’s previous record of three Richmond spring-race wins in a row from 1971 to 1973. Busch’s other two Richmond wins came in a sweep of both races there in 2018. With his impressive statistics and records to back him up, it’s little wonder that a visit to Richmond is one of Busch’s favorite stops on the NASCAR tour.
So, as the series heads back to the “Capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia” for the second playoff race of 2020, Busch and the M&M’S team look to bring home their seventh win there. Whether or not they make it back to victory lane, history has shown they’ll have a great shot at it and clinch a spot in the next playoff round.
Is Richmond one of your favorite tracks, and what are your expectations there this weekend?
“Richmond is a great place for us and our M&M’S team. You really got to be mindful of the bottom of the racetrack and also mindful of your brakes and how you use them, just because the track is so hard on brakes, especially getting into turn one, that you can really overheat your brakes, which overheats your tires and makes you slide around more. Having good cars there has certainly been something that we’ve been fortunate with at Joe Gibbs Racing over the years. I’ve won there six times and I’ve been in the top-five about every time we go there, so I would like to think that we can keep that string going and, more importantly, get a win. We need some wins this year and we look forward to Richmond being one of those places we can do that.”
What does it take to get around Richmond?
“Richmond is getting a little trickier, it seems like, just with the asphalt kind of getting older and the way the cars are. The consensus at Richmond is, of course, just trying to get your car to turn, but also having really good forward bite. You have to be able to get off the corners at Richmond. All of it correlates. Everything you want as a racecar driver, you’ve got to have most all of it and, if you don’t, then you better hope you have more forward bite than the rest of them. That’s sort of the equation of Richmond. It’s a fun place to race. It’s really cool. As a driver, you wish it could widen out and give you more options of being able to run around in different grooves, but it hasn’t shown us that the last couple of years. We’re hoping to get our M&M’S Camry another win there and put last week behind us.”
How important is it to unload perfectly in this first playoff round?
“It’s really important because starting the race off strong, you’re starting the race with all the rest of your championship contenders you’re racing against, so to be able to get those points right out of the gate, it’s hard to do because you’re all starting right around each other. There’s really not a lot of opportunity at some of these places for pit stops or chances to work on your car in the first stage to get those points. That’s probably been our biggest detriment this year. Even if we did have an opportunity to start up front, we would fall out of the top-10 and not have an opportunity to get (bonus) points, not even stage wins, but to get points that matter. Right now, you can still point your way through this first round, but you’re going to need some wins, also. Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both, and boom, you’re right back in the playoff picture. That should put us up to fourth or fifth, I believe, on the playoff points structure. That would give us a good opportunity to be right back in the ballpark. Being able to have success racing against the rest of your title contenders is certainly a big challenge.”
How has this year tested and challenged you more than previous seasons?
“This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. In 2015, I was injured and I was on the sideline and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to come back, and I was able to come back and then struggled for five weeks just getting a footing, and then finally being able to win again at Sonoma. Right there, that just lit a fire under us and that was all it took for the rest of the year to be a championship contender and a guy to go out there to compete with his team and be the best of all of them. This year, it’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind and what’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience. Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out there and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”
Can you compare Bristol and Richmond, both places where you’ve been successful?
“There’s really no comparison between racetracks, honestly, because Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta – they all look the same from overhead, but they all drive not even close to the same. Richmond and Bristol are more than oil and water, more than day and night. Bristol is an attack-type racetrack yet, when you attack, you can get yourself in trouble. Richmond is a very methodical racetrack and you have to be – you’re very much on edge there all the time, especially corner entry, getting into the corners. You’re always loose there and you have to be able to be loose there in order to carry the speed through the middle and have good drive off.”