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 seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR 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 wreaked by harsh Upper Midwest winters, and that repave added a tremendous amount of grip that wears less on tires. In the eight races since, Busch has five 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 FireKeepers Casino 400 Cup Series race, 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 three 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 Busch posted back-to-back top-five finishes in October 2014 and the fall race of 2015 while missing the spring 2015 race due to injury. And, in May 2016, Busch turned his moral victory from two years prior into an actual victory, the first of his Cup Series career at the 1.5-mile Kansas oval. In fact, Busch is now on a streak of five top-five finishes in a row at Kansas, the kind of streak Busch would like to start with Sunday’s race at the 2-mile Michigan oval.
As the M&M’S Red, White, and Blue team has struggled on Michigan’s newly paved asphalt the last four seasons, Busch will look to approach this weekend much like the No. 18 team did recently 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 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.) Motor Speedway and last weekend at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, 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 America’s troops. During this summer’s promotion, for every bag purchased by a consumer, one bag will be sent to troops abroad. Fans can also show their support on social media with #SayThanksWithM or at www.Walmart.com/SayThanksWithM
So, as Busch and the M&M’s Red, White, and Blue team head to the Midwest this weekend, they hope to benefit from the same approach they used on other repaved tracks to try and get a grip on the 2-mile Michigan oval. The ultimate goal will be a second career Cup Series victory for Busch in the Irish Hills of Michigan.