In the same way Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky has become synonymous with Georgetown and Scott County, Kyle Busch’s name is usually the first to roll off the tongue in any discussion of present-day NASCAR superstars.
That long, successful relationship between the esteemed nameplate and its legendary driver was celebrated Thursday afternoon, when Busch visited TMMK for an official celebration of the 2020 Camry and Avalon.
“I’ve driven them, seen them, been up close and personal with them before, but it’s nice to be able to kind of come back and be able to meet with some of the team members here and share a special day,” Busch said.
Busch, 34, combined the stop with his annual arrival at Kentucky Speedway, where he will compete Saturday night in the Quaker State 400.
On the heels of a dominating win at Kentucky’s inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in 2011, Busch also won the event in 2015. He has four other top-five finishes at the 1.5-mile loop in Sparta and has never finished worse than 12th place in eight prior starts.
“I love coming to Kentucky. It’s been a pretty good place for me over the years. A few years ago they repaved the place, and it kind of threw me for a little bit of a loop,” Busch said. “We still run well. We just haven’t won on the new asphalt yet, so we’re trying to get back to our winning ways of what we remember and being able to take home some more trophies. I’ve gotten two of those horse heads, and I’d love to be able to take home a third.”
Toyota Racing Development has been a championship outfit in NASCAR, once the exclusive domain of Chevy, Ford and Dodge, for nearly two decades.
TRD made its first major waves in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series before advancing to Cup in 2007, but its defining moment was an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
Busch, who was widely regarded at the time as the premier up-and-coming talent in the sport, joined forces with the former Washington Redskins coach and his motorsports operation that same year.
The vast majority of Busch’s record 206 wins in NASCAR’s three national series have come under that umbrella. Busch owns 55 wins, 284 top-10s and 31 poles in 516 Cup races, a career that is a lock for the hall of fame and highlighted by the 2015 championship.
“Toyota’s meant a lot to NASCAR. They’ve obviously put a big investment into this sport,” Busch said. “What we all love to do is be able to go out there and race and compete, and I feel like we’ve got some of the best people in the business with Toyota and TRD and all the team members.”
Busch and teammate Martin Truex Jr. share the 2019 series lead with four wins apiece. Truex seeks an unprecedented third consecutive win at Kentucky in Saturday’s showcase.
Before the track was repaved, it had a bumpy surface. Busch and his No. 18 M&Ms Camry team answered that riddle more efficiently than most.
Some of the bumps remain, he noted, but the smoother ride has leveled the playing field.
“When you were able to work with your crew chief and get in a good shock package to go over those bumps, that’s what kind of elevated you above the rest,” Busch said. “Once they repaved it and it’s a lot smoother, it brings everybody back together and doesn’t allow for the separation of the good guys as much. I say that, although Martin Truex has been phenomenal and one of the guys to beat the past few years. Hopefully we can take some notes from what those guys have been able to do and put it to good use for our team.”
With the Camry built here, an hour southeast of the speedway that sits in a rural stretch between Louisville and Cincinnati, Busch compares the Kentucky race to a home game in other sports.
“It’s always fun to come to Kentucky Speedway and be able to win out here,” Busch said. “It’s kind of our home race, our backyard. Everybody wants to talk about Michigan, the big three, all that sort of thing. Well, Kentucky’s our Michigan, so hopefully we can do [well].”
Toyota’s heavy involvement in the sport has helped Busch build his own racing empire, Kyle Busch Motorsports, at the formative levels of the sport.
Younger drivers drive Busch’s cars and trucks in NASCAR’s supporting series, in addition to major independent events throughout the country.
“There’s a big investment there. They do a great thing for the advertising, the promotion of the sport and the drivers, as well as giving us fast cars to go out there and win races with in the Toyota Camry,” Busch said. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been fun. The relationship has been phenomenal. I’ve gone to victory lane every single year of my Cup career, and we’ve been able to keep the winning streak alive.”
While other modern champions such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon focused almost exclusively on Cup, Busch is a throwback to the days of have helmet, will race.
His 95 Xfinity and 56 Gander Outdoors Truck wins attest to that. Over the years he’s also defeated local legends at storied short track races in Indiana, Ohio, Maine and Florida.
And regardless of what happens Saturday, Busch already was a big winner this week. He took home his second straight ESPY award as best driver — voted upon by the same fans who often boo lustily because Busch wins so much — as ESPN’s annual gala Wednesday.
“It is pretty cool. It’s an opportunity to go up against some of the best in my field,” Busch said. “You’ve got drag racers, Formula One, sports car guys, Indy Car guys, and me, a NASCAR guy in there. It’s cool to be able to beat all those guys out. We’ve got some of the best fans in all of sports, and to have them vote for me to be able to win that award is pretty special.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.