Kyle Busch’s first NASCAR race at Watkins Glen International wasn’t much to talk about.
He didn’t lead a lap and finished 33rd, the next-to-last car on the lead lap. The one positive – he was not involved in any of the seven cautions during that 2005 race.
It’s remarkable how things have changed, particularly on a type of track on which Busch never had much prior experience.
Yet Busch rolls into Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen as the defending race winner and he has two Sprint Cup series victories at the track (the other came in 2008).
Even more remarkable: In the seven starts since his rookie season, Busch has never finished worse than ninth. That’s a career average finish of 8.1 – third-best for Busch among the current tracks used in the Cup series.
“At the beginning I wasn’t excellent at road racing. I felt like I was OK, but I’ve gotten better at it over time,” said Busch, who was third-fastest in final practice on Friday. Qualifying is 11:40 a.m. Saturday.
“Just understanding the dynamic of the car a little bit more and what you can do with it, how much you can throw it around through the corners and all of that stuff. It just kind of takes time to figure all of that out.”
It’s not just road racing Busch has taken a liking to. By comparison, he has a victory at Sonoma, Calif., but in 10 career starts on that road course, his average finish is 20.9.
“I think one of the biggest things that lends to my success here is less opportunities for mistakes by others,” Busch said Friday. “Every single time I’ve been at Sonoma, I’ve been wrecked, so that’s why the results are so bad there.
“Knock on wood and go into Sunday, I suppose.”
Success on a road course – and the intricacies required to brake as well as turn left and right – might seem atypical for Busch, who has gotten a reputation as a hard racer at times.
Busch said he has enjoyed the challenge.
“You can pass anywhere on this race track essentially if a guy makes a mistake but if they’re not, you have to pass in a braking zone and you just have to out-brake the guy in front of you,” he said.
“If you out-brake somebody getting in there and you both are already on so much edge, one of you is going to have to give.”
Busch has had plenty of recent experience at Glen in that regard.
In the Cup series’ three most recent visits to the Glen, Busch, Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski have combined to lead 240 of a possible 270 laps, with Ambrose taking home wins in 2011 and 2012, and Busch winning last season.
Busch was leading the 2012 race entering the final lap, when he slowed for oil on the track and Keselowski spun him which allowed Ambrose to claim the win. In the 2011 race, Busch led 49 of 90 laps but on a late-race three-wide restart with Ambrose and Keselowski, he got shoved back to second.
Busch expects to see more of the same on Sunday.
“You’ll see a little bit of it, especially on restarts and stuff like that,” he said. “Watkins Glen is a place where we get a little bit more spread out throughout the run. Certainly, there are some areas where some guys can make some moves.”