How important is any one NASCAR Sprint Cup race in a season filled with 36 of them? Just ask Kyle Busch.
Last season, Busch came into the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Raceway eighth in points, having already won three races. But at Daytona, Busch had a hard crash at the start-finish line racing his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart for the victory. Instead of winning or at least finishing second, Busch was officially credited with a 14th-place finish.
The following race at Chicagoland Speedway, Busch was in a foul mood, saying NASCAR should have parked Stewart for the contact. He finished 33rd at Chicago and 38th in the next race at Indianapolis, dropping him to 14th in points. He never again got back into the top 12, missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time since his rookie season.
This time around, Busch is third in points and barring a major collapse, should easily get his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota into the Chase. Still, he has just two victories, while teammate Denny Hamlin and four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson have five each. That means Hamlin and Johnson already have accrued 50 bonus points to just 20 for Busch.
So over the next nine races before the Chase, Busch needs to post some race victories if he wants to cozy up to the frontrunners once the Chase begins. Daytona might be a good place to start.
“Jimmie is always going to be right there with you,” said Busch. “He’s got (five) wins, and Denny has five. ... We’ve got two, a couple of other guys have one, some have none. The bonus points can mean a lot when it comes down to it, or depending on how you run through the Chase, they can mean nothing. If you peak at the right time and you win five out of the last 10, then, boom, you’ve got a big advantage going through the Chase.”
As for Saturday night’s race, an event Busch won two years ago, the 25-year-old Las Vegas native said his plan will be pretty much the same as at the Daytona 500, which is 100 miles longer and contested mostly in the daylight hours.
“Your strategy doesn’t change a whole lot,” said Busch, who won the Coke Zero 400 in 2008. “ Forty laps, I think, is the distance change. It’s not a lot – just one pit stop – so you have a little bit shorter time there. The other thing you deal with is just the track conditions being the way they are and the summertime with it being so hot and slick. It tends to have the races kind of run a little bit more strung out than is typical in February.”
Busch is also keenly aware that this will be the last race on the old Daytona asphalt, which required a 2 1/2-hour delay to patch a hole in the Daytona 500 this past February.
“This is the last race on that surface of the racetrack in Daytona,” said Busch. “I will miss it. Hopefully, some of the other drivers will, too. We’ve got to make the racing surface right so we don’t have another problem like we did in the 500. I’m looking forward to it and hope we can have one more good run there before they repave it and it races a lot like Talladega. I haven’t been able to get Interstate Batteries in victory lane in a while, so I hope we can for Norm (Miller, Interstate Chairman) and the Interstate All Battery stores.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.