When Kyle Busch takes to the track this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, there will be several things to welcome back for 2022.
First, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) founding partner Interstate Batteries will be back on Busch’s No. 18 Toyota for the first of six races this season as the company celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2022 while also reaching an impressive milestone of 31 years as a team sponsor at JGR.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR Cup Series will return to Auto Club Speedway for Sunday’s Wise Power 400 for the first time since February 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the series from racing at the 2-mile oval in 2021. The hiatus, along with the introduction of NASCAR’s new NextGen car, will provide teams with some challenges trying to determine how best to set up a new car on a track they haven’t raced at in two years.
Busch and his Interstate Batteries team will be shooting for his fifth career Cup Series win at the track located approximately 50 miles east of Los Angeles. He’d like nothing more than to repeat his Auto Club 400 triumph from March 2019, which happened to be his 200th career victory in NASCAR’s top three series. He’s since lifted those totals to 222 overall, 59 of those coming in the Cup Series.
The Las Vegas native is coming off a solid finish in last Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. His sixth-place run yet again put him painfully close to delivering his first win in The Great American Race.
Before 2019’s milestone victory at Fontana, Busch and Interstate Batteries brought home back-to-back wins there in 2013 and 2014 – both in dramatic fashion. He is looking to add another win to his impressive record at the track, having scored his maiden victory there in September 2005 and rattling off 11 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s during his career. The two-time Cup Series champion also has six NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at Fontana – October 2008 and 2010, February 2009 and 2010, March 2011 and 2013 – which included a weekend Cup-Xfinity sweep in 2013.
So as Busch and the Interstate Batteries team head back to Fontana, he is hoping to not only be part of the Cup Series’ warm welcome back to Auto Club Speedway, but by the end of the weekend he hopes to be welcomed back to a place he’s quite familiar with there – victory lane.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What are your thoughts heading back to Fontana this weekend for the first time in a couple of years?
“I really enjoy the 2-mile track. I love going out to California. It’s a driver’s track and it’s aged over time. The surface has been ground, but I don’t think it’s been paved since it was first built back in 1997 or 1998. It’s been a long time with the place being aged, and it’s aged well. You can run all over it. Typically, recently you run up around the wall in the turns but you can still move around a bit. I hope the NextGen car will also allow us to move around and be pretty racy. We’ll go there this weekend with our Interstate Batteries Camry and try and get another win there. They are celebrating their 70th anniversary as a company this year and we would love to be a part of the celebration there with those guys.”
How has Auto Club Speedway changed over the years, going from a new track to a place that has a lot more character and racing grooves?
“That place is tough. It’s really a hard racetrack to get ahold of, now, especially when it’s hot and the sun is out. Obviously going back there for the first time in a couple of years and with the new car, there are going to be a lot of unknowns. But in the past, there were two completely different types of racing when you run the top versus the bottom groove. You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack. You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”
The decision still has to be made whether they keep the two-mile oval or turn Auto Club Speedway into a short track in the near future. What would you prefer they do?
“I’m a proponent of short tracks and have the most wins on short tracks, so bring it if they end up changing it. What they do with it is not in my control. Wherever we are told to go, we’ll go and race and run hard and try to run well. I think a short track would be exciting for the fans and, if they keep the bigger track, I think it has its positives, too.”
What do you remember about that night in 2005 when you captured your first Cup Series win at Fontana?
“We ran in the top-five all day long but we really didn’t think we had a winning car. When we got the lead a few times throughout the race, we just pulled away and led by quite a bit. It was really cool to have a really dominant racecar. I remember having to drive the car really loose. That was the loosest I think I’ve ever driven a racecar that was still moving forward. It was crazy because I came over the radio and told the guys I couldn’t believe how loose I have to drive the car. But it was fast. All of my wins there have been a little different, but memorable at the same time.”
What do you anticipate it being like to get your feet under you with the new car?
“I think the biggest thing with getting familiar with the new car is just understanding its little things that it likes and it doesn’t like, whether it’s setup-wise or even driving-wise. Just how far can you push the limit of the new car? Where are the breaks going to let you go into a corner, or how much grip is the bigger, wider tire going to have? How long does that grip hang on for and when does it fall off? You have to see if it was more or less than before. So, all of those things, there are so many more things to learn. The car being heavier and the driving dynamics of the car and the differential is all way different than anything we’ve ever seen.”