Kyle Busch remembers the day well. It was Aug. 21, 2011, and with just four top-10 finishes in 13 previous starts in his career at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, he found himself outdueling now six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for the win in a late-race shootout at the 2-mile oval.
But, during the offseason that followed, the heavily worn Michigan racing surface was repaved because of the toll harsh Upper Midwest winters wreaked, and that repave added a tremendous amount of grip that wears less on tires. In the six races since, Busch has four finishes outside the top-30, but also one top-five in June 2013.
During this weekend’s semiannual stopover in the Irish Hills for Sunday’s Sprint Cup FireKeepers Casino 400, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Red, White, and Blue Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) looks to benefit from the same approach he used the last two seasons on the similarly repaved Kansas Speedway in Kansas City.
Busch and his M&M’S team started from a blank sheet of paper and raced strongly at times at Kansas, starting with the 2014 spring race there. Anyone who has ever followed Busch knows he has never been into moral victories. However, the team overcame its past issues and posted back-to-back top-five finishes in October 2014 and the fall race of 2015, as Busch missed the spring 2015 race due to injury. But in his most recent trip to Kansas last month, Busch turned his moral victory from two years prior into an actual victory, the first of his Sprint Cup career at the 1.5-mile oval.
As the M&M’S Red, White, and Blue team struggled similarly on Michigan’s now-smooth asphalt surface the last three seasons, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens will look to approach this weekend much like the No. 18 team did the last two seasons at Kansas. On newer surfaces, grip level is greatly increased, which makes the speeds faster than usual. But, the racing groove remains narrower than usual as the track continues to take Goodyear tire rubber more quickly. Eventually, the groove will widen and competitors will have more options for three- and four-wide racing. That could happen this weekend as another rough Michigan winter has had its way with the repaved surface. In the meantime, sound tire and fuel strategy will be the keys to making sure this trip to the Automobile State is a successful one.
Like he did Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway, Busch will again sport a special Red, White and Blue M&M’S Camry promoting M&M’S partnership with Operation Gratitude and Walmart. For a limited time, fans can buy the Red, White and Blue M&M’S exclusively at Walmart. M&M’S candies were created 75 years ago as rations for our troops. During this summer’s promotion, for every bag purchased by a consumer, one bag will be sent to American troops abroad. Fans can also show their support on social media with #CelebrateWithM. More can be learned about the program at www.myconfectioncorner.com.
So, as Busch and the M&M’s Red, White, and Blue team head to the Upper Midwest this weekend, they hope to benefit from the same approach they used on other repaves to try to get a grip on the 2-mile Michigan oval. The ultimate goal will be a second career Sprint Cup victory for Busch in the Irish Hills of Michigan.