Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FONTANA, CA – It has certainly not been the season start to a robust defense of his 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship for Kyle Busch.
A pair of sub-par showings in the opening two races have placed the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in a rather unfamiliar position – not even among the top-20 in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings. But he arrives at California’s Auto Club Speedway for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with at least four good reasons to feel optimistic about turning the early season tide. Trophy, trophy, trophy and trophy.
Appearing all-businesslike at his media press conference Friday morning at Auto Club, the defending racer winner minced no words about his desire to get back on track, in all senses of the expression.
A disheartening 34th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 – due to an engine issue – followed by a 15th place showing in his hometown Las Vegas race last week has left the two-time series champion 27th-place in the rankings. It’s the lowest he’s been ranked after two races since 2013 when he was 33rd heading into the third event.
“If you look at last year, look at Vegas as a trend over the last few years, besides (JGR teammate) Martin (Truex Jr.) kind of being the anomaly, JGR cars haven’t really run very well at Vegas for a while,’’ Busch said. “When you come to California, here, we’re always one of the guys that are up front – cars that are to beat.
“I don’t look at this week as being too worrisome for us. It’s going to be nice to hopefully come out here with a good run, be able to run up front, maybe win like we did last year. That would certainly be really good for then getting into Phoenix with the different package.”
Certainly, the two-mile Auto Club Speedway presents a more than reasonable expectation of celebrating in Victory Lane for Busch. Only the track’s all-time winningest driver, six-time victor Jimmie Johnson, has more checkered flags. Busch has earned seven top-10 finishes in the last eight California races, including three of his four wins (2013, ‘14, ‘19), a runner-up in 2012 and a pair of third-place showings (2011 and 2018).
His 807 career laps led is second only to Johnson’s 980. And perhaps most encouraging about this total for Busch, is that he’s led 564 of those in that last seven-year span – 69.8 percent. And then there’s that feel-good part of the equation in that Busch earned the first of his 56 career NASCAR Cup Series wins at Auto Club Speedway in 2005. He remains the youngest winner in track history – aged only 20 years, four months and two days when he won in September, 2005.
In other words, there’s plenty of reason for Busch to feel optimistic about returning to form Sunday afternoon. Even if he wouldn’t exactly declare himself the favorite.
“I have no idea,’’ Busch said when asked what he expected of the race.
“I’d like it to be a cake-walk for the 18 (Busch) and nobody is within the vicinity, but that’s not always exciting,’’ he said. “The Interstate Batteries Camry here last year was really, really fast and (Martin) Truex was a little better in the final run, but we had much of the guys covered throughout the race.
“There in that final run we were just as good and we were able to hold everybody off. Can’t say what’s going to happen this time around, there’s been a year’s worth of development on everybody’s side to get to this point. Could be a completely different race, but I would like to hope not.’’
Busch is not a good loser. And he’s really not had to learn to be considering he’s much more accustomed to winning with a record 209 victories over the three major NASCAR Series – the NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series.
While his Cup start has been a bit off, Busch has already hoisted a big shiny NASCAR trophy – winning the Las Vegas Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race last Friday night. His dominance in the series – he’s won the last seven races he’s entered dating back to 2018 – have even incited a little social media revolution.
Fellow NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick along with the CEO of the Gander RV & Outdoor retail chains, Marcus Lemonis, have offered a “bounty” of sorts. Should another NASCAR Cup Series driver beat Busch in one of the remaining Truck Series races he’s slated to compete in, then big money – $100,000 – will be donated to that driver’s charity. Should Busch prevail, the money would go to his and his wife Samantha’s charity, The Bundle of Joy Fund, which helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.
It’s still a bit hard to read Busch’s gut reaction to the proposal, but he certainly embraced the additional publicity it would bring to one of NASCAR’s perpetually most exciting series shows. He was glad to see the chance for major money to help out a charitable fund.
“It’s all good,’’ Busch said, allowing a slight smile. “It’s going to be interesting, exciting, whatever you want to term it. I guess Cup drivers in the Truck Series do sell tickets so take that for what it’s worth.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity for more attention on the series, which is good. Maybe if more drivers had more teams that had rides then there would be someone else there than just myself. I don’t remember who I told, but once (Kevin) Harvick kind of put the idea out there, I thought the guy that really has a shot is (Kyle) Larson at Homestead. Bring it on.”