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.
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 eight Darlington races, and had another strong run going on the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval in May before being collected by another car with a blown tire that ended his race early.
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.
Since joining JGR in 2008, Busch has brought home six top-five finishes and 12 top-10s in 18 Darlington starts for JGR, but he’s still looking to back up his lone Cup Series victory there.
So as the Cup Series heads to Darlington for Sunday night's Southern 500, Busch knows he’ll need to not only race his fellow competitors, but also the “Lady in Black,” as the aptly named racetrack will be a challenge of its own. Add the fact that it’s the kickoff to the 2022 playoffs and the racing is sure to be exciting and entertaining as the 16 title contenders start a typically compelling final 10 weeks of the season with a champion to be crowned the first weekend in November.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M'S Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What are you expectations going back to Darlington for the second time this year?
“We’ve had good speed with our Toyota group on the mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks. We’ve been good at those places. Under a mile, we’ve struggled a bit, and road courses we’ve struggled a bit, as well. Would like to think we have a good shot at Darlington this weekend. We were running in the top-four the last time there and a car in front of us blew a tire and crashed and we got caught up in that. So don’t need any of that this time around. I would like to think we can go to Darlington and run in the top-five for sure and maybe even improve our program from the last time we were there and go out there and get a win with our M&M’S Camry.”
What is the most challenging part about Darlington, especially with it opening the playoffs the last few years?
“Darlington is a tough track. They call it the ‘Lady in Black’ for a reason. It seems like whether the pavement is worn out like it is now, it seems slick, or if it’s a brand new racetrack, the pavement still seems slick. That really kind of lends itself to some tough racing there. Being on the inside of guys and having a track that is only two lanes wide with the cars going around there at 170 or 180 mph, it makes it difficult for us. You try to pick and choose those battles as you go on throughout the race and try to pass those guys in the right spot so you don’t get in a bad spot where you break your momentum going forward into the next turn.”
Do you notice the racing getting different once you get into the playoffs with so much more at stake?
“Definitely. I feel like things do amp up and (drivers) race each other a lot harder and there’s a lot more on the line. You have to pick and choose your battles, but when you get into these playoff races, and even more so in the cutoff races, every position is a point and every point counts as you try to navigate and get through each round. So you just have to know who you are racing and what they have at stake and be smart. But you never know what it’s going to come down to that will get you to the next round or eventually to the final four, which is where all of us want to be to have a shot at a championship at the end of the year.”
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 to 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.”