Talking with Kyle Busch in the Sprint Cup garage you wouldn’t know he’s the hottest driver in the sport. He’s run and finished up front in the majority of the races he’s run in since missing the beginning of the season due to injuries from an accident at the season opening XFINITY race at the Daytona International Speedway in February.
In the media center at Watkins Glen International Busch said about his confidence coming into the weekend, “It was certainly unexpected (the win) I guess in Sonoma, but I feel like I’ve been a pretty good road racer over the years so it wasn’t surprising. Just look forward to these races. I always do every year. It’s kind of fun, it’s kind of a weekend off’ from the oval stuff. Love the opportunity to get out there and turn right, turn left and have some shifting going on and everything else. You try to make the most of it and have some fun with it and come out of here with some decent finishes. Over the years, we’ve run real well here at Watkins Glen. I think a little more so than Sonoma, but winning at Sonoma and having a really good car out there, I’m really optimistic about being here this weekend and hopefully carrying that road course momentum through to Watkins Glen.”
When asked how he was feeling and to compare it to how he felt at Sonoma he said, “I’m feeling better this week for sure than what I was at Sonoma. This is another month or month-and-a-half farther down the road in recovery and healing and everything else. I’m doing really, really good and I feel really, really good week in and week out getting out of the car. Everything is going real well for me. I can’t wait for the off-season to get the plates removed in my foot and then I feel like I’ll be right back to what I was before.”
Busch did reasonably well in the morning practice session coming in ninth place.
Jeff Gordon has had great success at Watkins Glen and in what is his last time running at the road course in upstate New York, Gordon has four wins, six top fives and an average finish of 14.8. Jeff was asked what the road courses meant to his career.
“I think early on I just remember wanting to take on every challenge as a team that we possibly could to improve to be a bigger threat for the championship,” Gordon said. “Back then you had to try to be good everywhere because every track mattered for the championship. It was something that we really pursued heavily. I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t grow up road racing a lot, I did enjoy it. We had a team and a car that was capable of being very competitive. Especially Ray (Evernham, crew chief) back in those early days when the crew chiefs had more flexibility, as to how you could find an edge over the competition. He worked hard on the transmissions, the braking, the set-ups and gave me everything that I needed to go out and push the limits of the car and get a lot out of it. We started excelling at them. I think when you look at the drivers and teams that outsiders look at in our sport of who is at the top of the list, I think if you can add a road course win to it, it separates you from the norm and puts you into an elite group. When I look at my road course wins and all the different tracks that I’ve won at, I think it just kind of adds to the stats of putting me into a unique category that I’m very proud of.”
It used to be that the majority of drivers loathed road courses, some still do, but the last 10 years have seen many winners on the road courses that were a bit unexpected. Gordon mentioned that NASCAR’s rule package evened the field.
“The cars are all so much more equal,” he explained. “Under the new rules that we have had for the last several years the cars are almost built by NASCAR in so many ways. It’s just so limited as to what you can do to the cars. We used to have full on specialized road course cars where they were completely dedicated to turning right more so than left. We shifted the weight around. We shifted the bodies around. We did a lot of things. That is all gone. Now we are basically racing cars that we would race on a short track we race here and they are not really designed for that. But we make do with it. So the cars are very equal which makes the drivers look much more equal, but then you do have a deeper field as well. It just seems like everybody over the years, where road course racing seemed to be brought into the sport, it has been around a long time. I don’t know to me always when I think of drivers that were really good they did well on the road courses. But then you had this big drop off where drivers and teams just didn’t really go after them and really struggled on them. To me about late 90s is when I saw everyone really putting a lot more focus and attention on them. And it started bringing the whole level of competition up higher. By early 2000, 2001 it seemed like most of the field was good on a road course.”
Gordon was asked the question he is apparently asked every week, ‘What are your memories of ….insert track name here?’
“I feel like I say this every weekend when I get asked about a track that I’m going to for the last time,” Gordon said. “I seem to remember the things that got away more than I think of the ones that were sitting in Victory Lane. Those are great moments and I’m proud of those, but I can’t help but think of spinning out in the closing laps here leading this race going into (Turn) 1 after I just watched Tony (Stewart) do the same thing about 25 laps before that. It was going to be a great battle between me and him. I just went in there and lost it. That one certainly stands out. I think I also ran out of gas on the last lap one time and got in (Kevin) Harvick’s way and he spun me out. I remember those.”
“But I also certainly have fond memories of coming here and just enjoying the challenges,” he continued. “I feel very fortunate to have won four races here. I’ve come here before and really struggled. Just felt like I was completely lost. The year that, I don’t remember if it was the year Ella (daughter) was being born or Leo (son), must have been Leo, when I had Scott Pruett standing in for me, we were really struggling. I remember talking to Scott about how loose the car was and hard to drive. He went out there just to get a feel for it in case he had to get in for me. He came in and his eyes were like this big (shows his hands wide open) and he was like, ‘I don’t know how you are driving that car.’ That was not a fun weekend. When you have weekends like that it makes you appreciate the good ones where you pull off the victory that much more.”
There’s a lot more to come from Watkins Glen International this weekend. On Saturday, the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series will qualify with the XFINITY Series race following Cup qualifying. The new format is likely to keep things interesting. Last year Gordon was shocked and excited that he won the pole. As this goes to press Gordon and his No. 24 car was fastest in final practice but we all know that calamity can strike at any moment on the road courses and for that reason, just about any driver out there can win the race Sunday.