Primed for the Playoffs
HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina (Sept. 1, 2021) – On its own, the 1.366 mile egg-shaped oval at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is a daunting challenge for NASCAR Cup Series competitors. But add in the fact that Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 is the first of the 10-race Cup Series playoffs, and it’s a recipe for a long, grueling night this Labor Day weekend.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), is certainly up to the task. The two-time Cup Series champion enters the postseason in much better shape than last season, carrying 22 playoff points to start the playoffs as opposed to just three playoff points a year ago. He sits fourth on the playoff grid to kick off 2021’s 10-race dash to the championship.
As Busch and the M&M’S team head back to Darlington, they return to a place where they’ve won before and Busch has enjoyed recent success. In fact, Busch has brought home top-five finishes four times in the last seven races and is had a strong third-place finish in the first Darlington race this season in May.
The Las Vegas native conquered “The Track Too Tough To Tame” in May 2008, which earned him the distinction of being the youngest Cup Series winner – at 23 years of age – in the track’s storied history. Busch also has two Xfinity Series wins at Darlington, coming in May 2011 and 2013. Last year, the Cup Series competed three times at Darlington after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a revamped 2020 schedule, and Busch brought home best runs of second place in the Wednesday-night race in May 2020, and seventh place in the Southern 500.
So as the Cup Series heads to Darlington for Sunday’s 58th running of the Southern 500, he knows he’ll need to not only race his fellow competitors, but also the “Lady in Black,” as the aptly names racetrack will be a challenge of its own. However, adding the fact it’s the kickoff to the 2021 playoffs will make for compelling racing to start an exciting and entertaining final 10 weeks of the schedule as the series looks to crown a champion in early November.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M'S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
Where do you feel you stack up for this year’s playoffs?
“Top five probably, I’d say. Any of the four Hendrick cars are really good. Three of them are really good. Denny (Hamlin) has been fast a lot of weeks. We’ve been fast a lot of weeks, too. As we saw at Michigan, sometimes you don’t always have to be the fastest car, you just have to have the right push to win. That’s how we won our race in Kansas earlier this year and (Ryan) Blaney won last week. There can be surprise moments any time but we are hoping for a strong start to the playoffs with our M&M’s Camry this weekend.”
What are your thoughts on the first round of the playoffs and advancing through?
“Hopefully we can get a couple wins in the first round. We’ve got Darlington and we ran third there in the spring. Richmond, we always run well at, and Bristol we always run well at. It would be nice to get a win or two in the first round. That would be great. The second round is probably the most challenging round for us with the Roval and Talladega being in there. Just have not had a good Roval experience, yet, and Talladega is always Talladega.”
How do you think the new strip of pavement in turn two at Darlington will affect the race this weekend?
“That’s going to be interesting, for sure. I feel like you are going to be slow into turn one and into turn two, and you are going to get to the grip patch and you are just going to be hauling butt off of turn two. You are going to go as fast as you can. I haven’t seen it, yet, so I don’t see where it ends. I don’t know if it’s on the end of the turn or onto the straightaway on where it ends, but if you can get a good run off of turn two and be fast off of that corner, you are going to be getting off into turn three way quicker than you need to be for the asphalt grip you’ll have going into turn three.”
Darlington was repaved prior to 2008 and it’s back to a surface that’s worn and chews up tires. How much does the surface there change from year to year?
“Darlington gets worn out a lot more every year we race there. We’ve gone back there the last couple of years and it’s really slickened up and fallen off. The pace falls off a ton over the course of the run and really chews up the tires for the first little bit of the race. As the rubber gets down on the track, it starts to level off a little bit, but still the day races there are treacherous and slick and hard to hang on. Especially coming back this year, we’ll have the lower-downforce, higher-horsepower package, which will be a lot more to have to hold onto.”
At Darlington, do you wait to get toward the front as it gets later in the race when the sun is starts going down? How does the track change as it goes from afternoon to early evening there?
“You start the race off there and you just don’t want to hit the wall. We know how easy it is get into the wall and get a Darlington ‘stripe.’ You don’t want to hit the wall and take yourself out of a chance to win the race. The early stages of the race, you are biding your time and racing the racetrack and you are trying not to put yourself in a bad spot, and you aren’t worrying about competition, and you aren’t trying to take too many chances. As it gets deeper into the race and closer to the checkered flag, you are definitely going to be going for it and, if you can find even a half-inch of grip by getting a half-inch closer to the wall because that’s where the speed is at, you’ve just got to do it.”