Still just 25 years old, Kyle Busch is rapidly burning through the NASCAR record book. Heading into the 2011 season, Busch already has amassed a total of 86 victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
In terms of combined victories in NASCAR's top three series, Busch isn't yet in a class by himself, but it doesn't take long to call the roll in the august class he's in. Ahead of him are just six men – Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Richard Petty. Should Busch have the kind of season he had in 2010, when he set new records for combined series victories (24) and Nationwide Series race wins (13), he'll vault all the way to second behind only The King, Richard Petty. And that's the man Busch is aiming to surpass, one day, in total NASCAR victories.
For most people, publicly setting such a lofty goal might come across as braggadocio or outlandish. But like the old saying goes, “It ain't braggin' if you can back it up” – which Busch certainly can. Last year he won three Cup races, the aforementioned 13 in the Nationwide Series and eight in the Truck Series. His career totals are now 19 victories in Cup, an astounding 43 in Nationwide and 24 in the Truck Series.
What's especially impressive is that the three vehicles he races are all unique technically. Or as Busch likes to put it, “They are all similar, yet they all are very different.”
From a technical perspective, the three vehicles are more alike than disparate. All three have a rectangular steel tubeframe, with integrated roll cage. Out back, they have solid rear axles, trailing arms, coil springs and a panhard bar. Up front, the differences start to come into play. While all three classes of NASCAR vehicles have upper and lower A-frames, coil springs and shock absorbers, the Cup cars use a series of bump stops and shims to control the front-end movements.
The Cup and Nationwide cars share a common chassis, with a 110-inch wheelbase. The Cup car is 198.5 inches long and 53.5 inches high. The Nationwide cars are three-quarters of an inch longer and about a quarter of an inch taller. But the trucks are a whole other animal – 206 inches long and 59 inches high. They punch a much bigger hole in the air than the two cars do. That has a whole series of ramifications on racing.
At every track other than Daytona and Talladega, the Cup cars use 358-cubic-inch engines that produce close to 900 horsepower. The Nationwide cars and the trucks use what's called a tapered space, a machined aluminum device that fits between the carburetor and intake manifold and limits the flow of the air-fuel mixture into the engine. As a result, those engines make only about 650 horsepower. Vive la difference!
Observes Busch, “They all drive drastically different because of the horsepower levels and the aerodynamics of all the vehicles now being so different from each other. Out there on the racetrack, say at a mile-and-a-half track, there's a big difference in the way they each react in the draft or around other cars or trucks.”
NASCAR set out to make the three vehicles progressively more difficult to drive as you move up the competition ladder. This is on-the-job training for the drivers and NASCAR wisely does not want young, green drivers getting in way over their heads early in their careers – especially not at 200 miles per hour.
So the trucks have the most aerodynamic downforce, which plants the vehicles firmly on track and gives the driver a secure feel behind the wheel, while the Cup cars have the least, which is why they are the hardest to drive. These differences make the driving techniques unique, too.
“The approach speeds into corners are all different,” says Busch. “The trucks you can drive in the farthest, the Nationwide cars, you back it up a little bit, and then the Cup cars, you back it up even more. It's all relative to the aerodynamics of the vehicles, to the stopping power of the vehicles. The truck is real boxy, so it doesn't get up to maximum speed as fast, but it's easier to slow it down because it has so much drag, so you can drive it into the corner farther. It has more downforce than any of the other vehicles, too.”The aero characteristics affect the lines the drivers take through the corners. Busch says being off the preferred line by as little as six to 12 inches at New Hampshire Motor Speedway can kill a lap, and the same is true at Pocono Raceway's tri-oval. Because the Cup engines can pull 9,400rpm, vs. 8,800 for the less powerful engines, gearshift points on restarts vary.
At Phoenix International Raceway, for example, the driving approaches vary, especially between the No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry Busch races in the Cup Series.
“In the Cup car at Phoenix, you really have to come up off the corner straight before you can apply the power,” says Busch. “There's so much horsepower in a Cup car that you really need to have the load of the horsepower working on both rear tires, rather than just the right rear. If you don't, you're going to burn off the right rear way too quick.”
That means a nice square exit to Turn 4, with the Cup car exactly parallel to the frontstretch wall.
“However,” Busch continues, “with a truck, you can really round the exit of the corners. One reason is that there's not a lot of power there so you're not going to burn off the right rear, and reason No. 2 is because there's so much side force on a truck, you can really lay up against the wall. It's like you've basically got a piece of plywood – the flat, slab-like side of the truck – that you can lean up against the cushion of air that's being created between the truck and the wall.”
At the high-speed, 1.5- and two-mile ovals, the handling characteristics are so pronounced that they influence lane choices on restarts.
“In the truck, you want to go to the outside,” says Busch, “because typically when you're on the inside, it's easier for you to get sucked around [into a spin] by the draft of the guy alongside you or for that guy on the outside to get right on your door and make it hard for you to get by. So you have to do it in a hurry.
“With the Cup cars, you like to restart on the inside, usually, because it's the shortest way around and you can force the guy beside you to go high and take the longer, slower line. But you have to be conscious of what kind of track you're at for the exit of the corner. If you're somewhere like Charlotte, and the guy at the top gets big momentum down the straightaway, he'll blow right by you.”
And at restrictor-plate tracks, the draft can play havoc.
“The truck's definitely not easiest in the draft,” says Busch. “It moves around a lot more. You can be going down the straightaway and if somebody pulls alongside you, it almost turns your truck sideways on the racetrack. It will really move you around. You can be in control of another guy's truck more than he is in control of it, depending on how you move the air around it. The hole that's punched in the air – the trucks are the biggest, then it's the Nationwide cars, then it's the Cup cars. They're the slickest of all three, even though they've got that boxier look.”
So where does Busch feel as though he has the most success?
“I feel like I'm pretty good at all of them, but I think it's all competition-relative, as to where the success comes from, you know?” he says. “I won eight races in the Cup Series in 2008 and I won eight races in the Truck Series last year. I won 13 in the Nationwide Series, so I've had plenty of success in a given year in each series. I would say I'm really good at Nationwide, for some reason. The Nationwide Series is probably the easiest and comes to me the best, but I'd still like to say I'm successful at Cup and Trucks.”
The biggest delineation might be this: A great driver can win in a not-so-great truck. That's not the case in Nationwide or Cup.
“When you're in the Cup Series and you have a bad car, you're not going to carry it very far,” Busch says. “I think it's all competition-related. The Cup Series, you have to be so precise and so perfect with your vehicle and that's the only way you're going to run good. In the truck, it can be off by a little bit and you can still hustle it, manhandle it and you can actually win with something that doesn't drive that great.”
Well…Kyle Busch can, at least.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the April 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.