As the NASCAR Cup Series is heading into its 16th consecutive weekend of racing, competitors are headed west to Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350k. For good reason, many drivers and team personnel are looking forward to the one and only off weekend that follows the race at Sonoma. And what better way to springboard into the lone off weekend of the Cup Series’ grueling 36-race schedule than with a win at Sonoma.
Before the series break commences, NASCAR’s top series gets its second road-course test of the season as it heads to Northern California’s Wine Country.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Crunchy Cookie Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is on the record as someone who really enjoys making right and left turns on the road courses. To him, road courses feels like somewhat of a vacation as they are a vast departure from the ovals that make up the majority of the schedule, even with many more road courses on the schedule than there were early in his career.
The 1.99-mile Sonoma circuit is one of numerous road courses where Busch has won as he has evolved into a constant threat to win on them each year. His Sonoma wins came in 2008 and 2015. Today, road-course racing has taken on even more importance on the Cup Series calendar the past couple of seasons with the addition of Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway grand prix circuit joining the traditional stops at Sonoma, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International and the Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway Roval. With the recently added road-course races, it’s more important than ever to have a strong driver and team that can turn left and right.
While his road-course success is well documented, Busch’s most memorable road-course win was the 2015 Sonoma event. After sitting out the first 11 NASCAR Cup Series races that season because of injury, Busch and the M&M’S team had 15 races to meet two requirements in order to make the 2015 playoffs. He needed to have at least one victory, and he needed to make finish the regular season among the top-30 in driver points.
Busch’s Sonoma race that year was a turning point in his season as he snuck past seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson on a late-race restart to bring home the win, thought to be an unlikely one as he had to deal with all the shifting and footwork that is required on the tight, twisty road course while still recovering from his injuries. It started a remarkable streak of four wins in five weeks, including three in a row at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, and the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, and the season culminated with his first Cup Series championship.
Just 15 races into the 2022 season, Busch is already starting to put together another championship-worthy effort. In addition to his win on the dirt surface at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway back in April, Busch and the M&M’S Crunchy Cookie team have been incredibly consistent of late, racking up six top-five finishes and 11 top-10s, which also includes a finish no worse than third over the past three races and narrowly missing out on another win last weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.
M&M’S Crunchy Cookie will once again be adorning Busch’s No. 18 Toyota at Sonoma on Sunday. M&M’S Crunchy Cookie combines two favorite treats – M&M’S and chocolate chip cookies – and is now available nationwide. It’s bound to give race fans a fun, nostalgic snack to enjoy during this weekend’s race.
So, as the Cup Series heads to its annual stop in Wine Country, Busch looks to continue his strong recent form during this weekend’s “racing vacation” on the Sonoma road course, hoping it leads to more success throughout the summer.
What do you think about changes to Sonoma this season?
“This car is faster on the road courses because it has more grip. It is a more central-built racecar, meaning that it’s not just built to go left. I think the race should be competitive. All of the cars are the same, right? So, it should be more competitive. It’s just a matter of who runs over who that will determine whether we look like the local go-kart track or we look like professionals. That will determine the race length. Certainly we’ve had some good runs lately and we hope to keep that going and get us another win this weekend with our M&M’S Crunchy Cookie Camry TRD.”
Is road-course racing something that comes naturally to you, or is it something you had to work on?
“It’s definitely something you have to work on. With changes to the car, and tire changes, it’s something you work on every year. There’s always change that you have to work on to be competitive. When I was a kid back in Las Vegas in Legends cars, that’s where I was able to learn about shifting and turning left and turning right. I had the natural instincts for it and won a couple of championships in the winter series we had out there. We actually went to Sonoma back then and ran the national championship races two years in a row and finished third both times, so I had a little bit of experience on road courses as I came up through the ranks.”
How special was your 2015 Sonoma win, and what do you remember about it?
“That weekend was certainly a good start to our championship run. To go out there and win the race after where we were after Michigan the previous week, it gave us the confidence that we still had a shot to win the championship. We thought getting the win would be the hardest part, but it was really not expected at Sonoma. My feet and legs were still recovering and there was a lot of shifting and it was hard on them. With 30 laps to go, it was hurting pretty bad but, when you realize you have a chance to win, it doesn’t hurt as bad. We’ve had times at Sonoma where we’ve been up front and haven’t been able to hold onto it, and other times when we had the right strategy and we were in the right place at the right time. We’ve had some bad luck at times there, as well, so we’re hoping we can get a good run with our M&M’S Crunchy Cookie Camry at Sonoma.”
Describe what it’s like to race at Sonoma and what challenges you face there?
“Sonoma is a neat place. It’s a cool area to go to up into Wine Country. I’ve always enjoyed road-course racing. Even when I was in Legends cars, I would enjoy going up there during the days that I raced there. Now that I’m on the Cup tour, it’s cool to go there every June. It’s a fun racetrack. The cars get grouped a lot closer together there than at Watkins Glen, where it’s more wide open, so braking there is a lot tougher getting into turn four, turn seven, and especially turn 10. There are some opportunities in those corners to pass people. Forward bite seems to have become an issue as you get going there during the run with our previous cars. And you need to make sure you keep the rear tires underneath you because it’s really easy to burn them babies off when you try and pass somebody. You go to pass somebody and hit the gas and all your rear tires want to do is spin and you can’t get alongside that guy. So, from that respect, Sonoma can be frustrating at times, as well. Sort of a whole new ballgame this year with this car and it’s possible we might be battling some different things. We just want to get in a position to win and then see how the strategy plays out.”