Despite his third top-five finish in three Chase for the Sprint Cup Series races, so far, Kyle Busch dropped to third in the championship points standings after Sunday’s race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, trailing leader and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. But he’s only 12 points out of the lead, so a possible first championship is still well within the realm of possibility.
Busch is off to the best Chase start of his career. Earlier this week, he participated in a NASCAR weekly teleconference to talk about his season so far, his championship chances and the upcoming Hollywood 400 at Kansas Speedway. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Kyle, you’re off to the best Chase of your career heading into two tracks where you’re still searching for a Cup win. Do you believe the current momentum will continue over the next two weeks as you attempt to catch your teammate Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson?
KYLE BUSCH: Well, you would certainly hope so. We definitely had a great start to our Chase thus far with three top fives in a row. We go to one of our worst racetracks on the circuit. Probably going to be our second biggest test, we feel like, in the Chase. We’re ready for it. We’re focused and excited about being able to get there and have a great weekend in Kansas.
Then we go to Charlotte, which is a place I love to go race. We’ve run really, really well there in the past few races. We’ve had a lot of top fives and top 10s there and we’ve led a lot of laps. You would hope with all those things considered, the way we’ve been running so far in the last few weeks, maybe a win is on the brink in Charlotte, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Q. Kyle, do you think that tire test in July gives you a little bit of an edge to kind of snap your Kansas woes from the past?
KYLE BUSCH: We certainly think so. It was a great time to be able to come out there and get a tire test in.
We felt like with the unsuccess we’ve had the last couple times being there since the repave, the tire combination we had, it was just really, really hard for me to get a feel for the tire and the racetrack that I was looking for.
We could run fast laps, post quick times in practice and qualifying. Just in the race when you get in traffic, everything starts changing, the rubber starts going down, it would throw us for a little bit of a curve.
This time around, getting the tire test done, getting some information with the car, getting me more suited to the racetrack with a different tire combination, we felt like it was a positive for us.
Certainly we hope those results will be indicative of how we run this weekend and we can have a better go of it.
Q. Kansas is kind of the second biggest challenge. Which one is the first?
KYLE BUSCH: I would say Talladega is your biggest challenge. Just how are you going to race there? Are you going to go full bore? Hang out, ride in the back? What exactly is going to happen? There’s so much unknown in that race, I think that’s the biggest test for everybody.
But if we had to pick a second biggest test, it’s probably Kansas.
Q. As far as the Chase goes, two seconds and a fifth, average finish of third, and you’re third in the points. Do you get a feeling of, Gosh, what more do I have to do?
KYLE BUSCH: Not yet. It’s going to be a knock-out, drag-out, that’s for sure. We’re going to have to win some races. There’s no doubt about that. We see the two championship contenders we’re going to be racing with throughout the rest of the year, they’ve won the first three races. There is no doubt that’s what it’s going to take, and I’ve said that from the beginning.
It’s a matter of continuing to knock out these top fives right now, and when our wins come to us, hopefully they do, those will be the bonus points and those will be the extra points we need to get ourselves further up the ladder.
Whether those guys finish second, third or further back, us winning races is what’s going to get us most points. That’s what it comes down to.
Right now it’s not make-it-or-break-it time, it’s certainly the time to keep getting solid finishes and keep doing solid runs throughout the races in order to get ourselves down into Texas, Phoenix, Homestead.
Q. Kyle, you’re obviously a veteran of the Chase. Hasn’t always turned out the best for you. Could you kind of compare this year going into it. You obviously have the experience on your side, but can you maybe go over how this year might feel a little bit different to you, if it does?
KYLE BUSCH: Yeah, I mean, this year’s definitely the best start we’ve ever been off to. We’ve never finished second or had three top fives in a row to start a Chase, I don’t feel like, if history serves my brain correctly.
As far as I’m concerned, though, 2011 was a pretty good Chase year for us. We started out the year okay. Wasn’t great. The Chase year, I should say. We got through Charlotte and we were third in points, I believe. We still had a shot. We felt like we were in contention. We had five more races to go. We had an opportunity to win the championship in 2011.
We went to Talladega and we got crashed, then we went to Martinsville and we got crashed late in the going after running 1-2 with my teammate all race long. That was sort of our year. The championship was essentially out of reach, it was over with.
The year was certainly frustrating, but this is a new time for us. 2013 can hopefully be our season where we continue to knock off some of these good finishes, and our second biggest test, like I said, comes this weekend.
Q. Some fans have a feeling it’s really down to a race between three guys. Do you feel that way?
KYLE BUSCH: I haven’t looked at the points. I have no clue. I don’t care to know. As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be a race to execute the way the 18 team needs to execute, and we need to handle our own Chase as we can and not worry about anybody else.
Q. Kyle, it’s not unusual obviously for teammates to be competing in the Chase together. With you and Matt, does it make any difference having another guy in there, especially somebody that’s running as well as he is, while you’re also running well? As you go down the road, do you foresee any issues as far as looking at what each other is running or working with similar setups or anything like that?
KYLE BUSCH: It certainly is beneficial to have two or even three cars in the Chase. Unfortunately Denny has had a terrible season. But with Matt and myself in the Chase, in contention so far, it’s obviously worked really, really well for us. The things we’ve been doing all year long, we’ve been sharing some great information. We both have similar feedback. We both share similar feelings in the racecar of how we’re feeling, how to get the most out of our equipment. The 18 and the 20 team work really well together.
The things we have to continue to do is just that, we have to continue to work together. It’s going to be a lot better to have us two being able to bounce ideas off of all the way down into the Chase and to race against the other cars.
I feel like the 48′s always sort of been the 48. He’s always been able to run way better than the other Hendrick cars. I think this weekend Dover was the first time we’ve been able to see other Hendrick cars be able to compete like the 48. We’ll see how that plays out throughout the rest of the Chase.
I don’t foresee anything changing. I see competition getting stiffer. Whether or not Matt and I are the ones competing against each other, that’s to be seen. But I don’t think anything’s going to change. We still communicate, as well as our crew chiefs. Dave Rogers and Jason Ratcliff have worked with each other for many years in the Nationwide ranks, sharing information and competing for championships down there, now ultimately at the Cup level.
It’s going to be interesting how it all plays out. We have a great working relationship between all four of us as well as all six of us with Denny and Darian.
Q. Do you have off the top of your head any specific instances where something they’ve done has been especially beneficial to you guys or maybe something you guys have done has helped them out?
KYLE BUSCH: Off the top of my head right now, Chicago we ran similar setups. We tested there earlier this summer. He tested something different. I tested something different. But in the end we kind of migrated a little bit closer towards each other.
Loudon he actually took my exact setup from the springtime when I led a lot of laps and ended up finishing second. He put that in his car and he was lights out all weekend long, just had a great weekend.
So tried a little bit something different. Our qualifying draw wasn’t very good, so we had to start in the back, 12th, had to work our way forward. Once we did, we were just as fast if not faster than Matt at the end of the race.
There’s been times where we’ve been back and forth. We’ve been sharing information all year long and things have been working well for the two of us.
Q. Kyle, could I get you to look ahead a little bit to Talladega, your feelings about the place, and also the role it plays.
KYLE BUSCH: I think Talladega’s definitely the biggest test for everybody. There’s certainly too many variables. It’s so wide open that you just have no idea. Anybody can go into that race and win. We saw it in the spring with David Ragan and David Gilliland being able to team up at the end of the race and win the race, which was a huge David and Goliath story. I wouldn’t mind seeing that again, having a non-Chase guy win the race there in Talladega.
We just need to go through that weekend, have a good, solid picture of what we want to achieve. Of course, that’s a top-10 finish. Anything less than that is going to hurt us. But we certainly feel like we’ve had great cars there in the past. Matt Kenseth has been especially strong at restrictor plate races last year and this year. We think there’s an opportunity there for Matt to do well. We also need to be there and back it up and run well ourselves.
Q. You probably heard this morning that Kyle Larson is going to make his Cup debut at Charlotte in a week or two. Since you’ve run against him in the Nationwide Series this year, I’m curious if you think he’s ready and if he’s got what it takes to run in the Cup Series?
KYLE BUSCH: Well, I don’t think you’re ever really ready. I’ve said it before. When I was given the opportunity to go Cup racing in 2005, I don’t think I was necessarily ready. I think I was really young.
There’s no better time to learn than when you are young so you don’t develop bad habits in the Nationwide Series and being there for too long, not getting a taste of what the Cup cars are.
I’m not sure if he’s done any testing with them or not. The Charlotte race will certainly be a test for him. I’ve heard Martinsville too, I think. It’s good he is getting his feet wet this year. It will give him something to work on and develop. It will give him the opportunity to go into the off-season thinking about what he felt and what he is looking for in his car and to be able to get ready for next season.
I think it’s beneficial to get those couple of races no doubt. I think he’ll do fine.
Q. Kyle, JGR will do a test at Texas Motor Speedway coming up here. You’re going to have the Hendrick cars, Roush cars. Is that something you like, everybody gets to see what everybody is doing, or is it almost better in this situation to have a date where you’re there by yourself, not seeing what the 48 can do but they’re not seeing what you can do?
KYLE BUSCH: I think you’ve just laid out both instances there. It’s essentially however you want to look at it. It’s certainly a great test to be able to get out there. The more cars you can get on the racetrack, the more rubber you can get laid down, I think it’s more beneficial to your test and your procedures that you get through, the things you can test and learn from. I think that’s an added benefit to it.
I think there is the downside to it. They’re there, they get to see how fast you’re going. You both get to push the envelope a little bit. You’re going to have stopwatches on each other, trying to learn what the other is doing, not necessarily what you’re doing with the car, but your lap times. In the garage area, you can look over and see. You’re really focused too much on your own thing to really see what anybody else is doing.
It’s the time to where we’ve had a good package there in the spring. We look to develop that and continue to evolve that and see if we can’t help make our cars a little bit faster.
At the same time, you know, it’s a good chance to see how we stack up and if we can learn some information to get ready for not only Texas but also Homestead.
Q. Kyle, it’s been seven years since Joe Gibbs has won a Cup championship. Now you have the leader and third-place car. What makes Joe Gibbs the owner he is over these years? He stuck with you through thick and thin.
KYLE BUSCH: Well, I think Joe obviously has a huge following with his Christian faith, what he feels and believes in that respect. He obviously sees a lot in me. That’s why he’s been so passionate in order to continue to stand by me and help me through things, difficult situations.
I think Joe is a huge advocate of the sport. I think he does a lot for the sport. I think he does a lot for people in their lives in general, including myself, my wife Samantha.
He’s a huge inspiration to many. I think everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing looks up to him. Without Joe there, it wouldn’t be Joe Gibbs Racing. We still feel like he’s the man. We enjoy having him around all the time, making a difference in what he can do day in and day out.
Q. Kyle, when you started racing many years ago, the cars have changed so much because of technology, how much tougher is it today for you as a driver to explain to your crew about the problems the car might be having, what part of the car’s engine might be totally different from the days when we didn’t have all of this technology?
KYLE BUSCH: Yeah, I mean, certainly things have changed a lot and they’ve evolved a lot over the years, whether it’s been safety or whether it’s been the car itself. The way you run coil setups or bump-stop setups, nose weight, wedge setups, things have gone all over the place all the time.
Since we came from the COY cars to the COT to now the Gen-6 racecar, a lot of things have definitely gone in this side and out that side. There’s a lot of things you try to learn, yet you also try to forget.
It’s a difficult transition. But these cars here nowadays, everybody is on such a fine edge of trying to find the speed to be the fastest car out there. It really is challenging. You have to be focused on what your car is feeling like to be able to communicate with the crew chief to try to help fix that thing.
Some of the biggest problems we have week in, week out, year in, year out, is trying to fix the balance in the corner. You can get in the corner, turn the center of the corner, exit the corner. I could probably dissect a corner every 50 or 100 feet and the car is doing something different. It’s hard to fix every single instance of what the car is doing or what you’re feeling in those instances.
Again, those are moments when you have to kind of numb yourself a little bit to everything and pick and choose which ones are the worst for you and work around those.
Q. At some point the cooperation between teams has got to end. If, for example, you and Matt go to Phoenix and you’re the last two guys standing, isn’t there a point at which you close the door and plan your car and plan your race without any concern for what they’re doing, or do you share an open notebook all the way to Homestead?
KYLE BUSCH: Well, I think you share an open notebook all the way to Homestead. That’s the ethical thing to do. That’s the way we’ve always worked at Joe Gibbs Racing for years. I don’t think there’s ever been an opportunity for me when I’ve been in that situation before where you have two of the same cars on the same team going for a championship.
It can certainly make for some difficult moments or some team meetings that maybe you don’t share everything. But I think in essence, like I said, the ethical thing to do is to be complete open book. May the best man and crew chief win.
It’s mostly going to come down to, you know, Saturday night, Sunday morning, when the most thoughtful changes are going into the racecar. Whether Jason Ratcliff throws together a magic package for Matt Kenseth or whether Dave Rogers can throw a magical setup for me and we can have a better car on Sundays.
I don’t foresee much of that changing. We come down into Homestead, hopefully it is the two of us battling it out. All that does is guarantees Joe Gibbs a championship and Joe gets to sit up on the stage, and that will be pretty cool.
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR