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KYLE BUSCH - What a Difference a Year Makes

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. February 6, 2009: When it came time last season for Kyle Busch and the No. 18 M&M’s team to ship off from Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) Huntersville, N.C., race shop to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the season-opening Daytona 500, the only thing that was known was that there were plenty of unknowns.

Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, had just moved to JGR to pilot the team’s legendary No. 18 machine after four seasons at rival Hendrick Motorsports. That, coupled with JGR’s switch from Chevrolet to Toyota power, produced a number of question marks surrounding the team as the 2008 season began.

But while many NASCAR observers didn’t know what to expect from Busch and crew chief Steve Addington, it quickly became apparent 2008 would serve as the breakout season many expected from the talented 23-year-old driver. The combination yielded eight Sprint Cup wins, 17 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes, and made new partner M&M’s® Chocolate Candies regular visitors to victory lane.

Adding to his Sprint Cup success, Busch also won in seemingly everything else he drove. By season’s end, the Las Vegas native had notched 21 victories across NASCAR’s top three series – Sprint Cup (eight), Nationwide (10) and Camping World Truck (three). Busch bested the previous record by seven wins for most victories overall in a season since the addition of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1995.

The 21 wins in 2008 equaled his victory total of the previous five seasons among NASCAR’s top three divisions, giving him a total of 42 career wins. In 2009, Busch will have the opportunity to shatter records again as he’ll compete full-time in the Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series while also driving in 12-14 Truck Series events.

While the 2008 regular season hot streak proved that the No. 18 squad belonged in the conversation as one of the sport’s top teams, the outfit begins 2009 looking to rebound from a tough 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup where they finished 10th in the season-ending point standings. They’re ready to prove themselves as worthy contenders to knock off NASCAR’s three-time-defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team.

With 2008 now in his rearview mirror, Busch just might find 2009 to be the year he becomes a “veteran” as the still youthful racer enters his fifth full season competing in NASCAR’s top series. Last November’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway marked Busch’s 150th career Sprint Cup start, giving Busch more starts overall than 18 of the 43 starters in the event. He is also within 30 starts of four other active drivers – Kasey Kahne (180 career starts), Scott Riggs (167), Brian Vickers (172) and Carl Edwards (157).

As Busch and his No. 18 team head to Daytona Beach this time around, they’re not only a proven commodity, they’re also one of the favorites to win the 51st running of the Daytona 500.

Last year proved to many that Busch, Addington and the entire M&M’s team can compete and win with regularity. This year, they hope to show what a difference a year can make as they keep their eyes fixed on the big prize – being able to hoist the Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead in November.

KYLE BUSCH: Driver, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry at Daytona International Speedway

Going into last season, you might not have known what to expect with a new team, a new manufacturer in Toyota and a new sponsor with M&M’s. With all that you accomplished last season, how does the start of 2009 compare to the start of 2008?

“This year is going to be very different knowing everything that happened in 2008. Having a year under my belt with Steve Addington and the team and Joe Gibbs Racing will certainly help. And the way we ran the first 26 races, there were a lot of expectations for us over the final 10 races. I think getting to start fresh with a new season, and starting with the Daytona 500, I think we’ll run well and I hope we can do exactly what we did in the first 26 races last year but also carry that momentum into the final 10 races.”

Many know how competitive and hungry you are on the racetrack each weekend. With the way last season ended, do you feel more determined than ever going into 2009?

“I do. We worked on a lot of things in the off-season that we learned from last fall. I’m always going to be a competitive person no matter what, even aside from what happened at the end of last year. I’m going to go out there and try to win as many races as possible and compete for the championship just like any other year. Hopefully, we can get some luck to fall our way.”

Do you think that it’s fair to expect to go out there and dominate like you did in the first half of last season, or is that a once-in-a-career occurrence?

“I don’t think there’s a reason why we can’t do well, but I don’t foresee us winning eight races again. You have to have luck on your side. We got to the middle part of last year, and when we won a couple of those races, it was unreal how easy it was to win. I thought, ‘Man, something’s going on here.’ When we got to the final 10 races, it was like all the luck was used up and it seemed like nothing went right. It’s amazing that with the flip of a switch, it’s there, and the next minute it’s gone. This year we can do the same thing. If we are solid each week and have a little bit of luck go our way, we can finish in the top-three or the top-five. If we have that extra luck that we had over the first part of the season, we can win some races again.”

How humbling can this sport be, knowing how quickly your luck changed from good to bad last year?

“I think the final 10 races certainly humbled all of us. Everyone already had virtually guaranteed us the championship after seeing the first 26 races. It changed so quickly. We were in New York doing Chase media, talking about how great the first 26 were, how we’d like to carry it on, and how pumped we were that we had a chance at the championship. Then you get to the first three races and have mechanical problems sort of out of our control. It was unfortunate and frustrating. You look back on it, now, but you just have to start this season fresh and forget about it.”

As an organization, Joe Gibbs Racing looks different than it did last year with veteran Tony Stewart leaving and Joey Logano coming on board. With an overall youthful driver lineup, how does it change things for you, Denny Hamlin and Logano leading into 2009?

“From the race team aspect, it’s going to change at JGR with Joey coming on board and Tony leaving. It’s sad to see Tony go, but at the same time, it’s exciting to have Joey on board. You never know what you can learn. There are a lot of things I learned from Tony, good and bad, and there are a lot of things that I’ll learn from Joey, good and bad. Same with Denny and I. Just having the three young guys on the team and Denny being the senior driver, it’s going to be different. But there’s a great group of people around Joe Gibbs Racing starting with the leadership of Joe (Gibbs) and J.D (Gibbs) and Jimmy Makar. Then you have veteran crew chiefs like Steve Addington, Mike Ford, and Greg Zipadelli and the engineers. I think the structure is still there, so I think it will work out just fine. I think Joey will get up to speed quickly, and the only way to do that is to come to us for advice and ask questions, which I know he will.”

Who is the guy that really rallies the troops at JGR? Does it have to actually be the guy that sits in the seat of the racecar each week?

“I think the guy that is going to get us all headed in the right direction is J.D. (Gibbs). He’s going to pull us all together and tell us that we need to work on something specific. Joe (Gibbs) is the same way. He takes a lot from his football background and gets everyone together as a whole. That’s just the way they are. That’s how they run their organization. As far as the drivers go, Denny could do it or I could do it and even Joey could. When times are tough and one of us is struggling, or all of us are struggling, there’s a core group of guys and some depth there that those guys will figure it out and help guide us in the right direction.”

With no NASCAR-sanctioned testing in 2009, what has the team has been working on to get ready for the season?

“Things in the shop. Working with our computers with telemetry and simulations and things along those lines. That’s what it’s all going to come down to. Besides that, we’ve been going to some tracks. New Smyrna has a facility to for testing. Rockingham has two tracks where we can test. We’ve just been working on a lot of things, like our short-track package. All the flat tracks – Martinsville, Loudon, Pocono – we just really struggled at those places last year. If we could try to figure out what is going on at those tracks, we can be a lot better.”

Winning eight Sprint Cup races in a season is quite an accomplishment, but how much do you think about championships?

“Anything you ever work toward is for a championship, so it doesn’t matter how many race wins you have at the end of your career. Everybody always looks at the championships that you have been able to accumulate. If you haven’t accumulated those, then they look at race wins. You want to be a champion, and for me, a champion in NASCAR’s top series, the Sprint Cup Series, is ultimately what we look for every weekend. The championship is pretty much what you think more of than race wins.”

STEVE ADDINGTON: crew chief, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry at Daytona International Speedway

How much did Kyle Busch have to prove when he joined the team?

“He came in here and he had a lot to prove. He had to find out where he was, too – as a driver and as a person. You take losing a ride at Hendrick Motorsports and that’s a pretty big deal for a 23-year-old kid to have questions, and have to answer questions about where I am as a driver because I’m the odd man out here. He came in here and I think he saw the type of guys and the type of organization we have here at Joe Gibbs Racing and felt comfortable. I think he was more comfortable here after that first test than he ever was there.”

Do you feel you need to win a championship to be successful this year?

“We were all disappointed coming away from the year without a championship after we saw the kind of year that we could have. Going into last year with a new driver coming in here, the team was unproven, as far as that group of guys working together. This year, I think we approach it as ‘championship or bust.’ If you don’t, you don’t have any competitive fire in your stomach. We know what we are capable of doing if we give Kyle the cars that he needs and work well together. So, it’s going to be a disappointment if we don’t win a championship.”

How much testing has the team done?

“We’ve been over to the Rockingham (N.C.) racetrack, doing some short-track stuff, and we went to New Smyrna (Fla.) for a couple of days and did some brake testing and stuff like that. Mainly, it’s just been trying to make our cars better. Since we rushed through the deal last year with switching to Toyota, this year we’ve had some time to work on some new cars and really pay attention to detail. That’s been kind of the nice part of it, trying to get a game plan and trying to get our cars better for the coming year.”

What steps have been taken to gain back the advantage you had last season?

“What I think is that we got stale with the package that we had. I think some of the guys caught up to us on the handling package, but I think they got a little bit better engine package on their end of it and caught up with us. It’s hard to say. I think if you look back at the Charlotte race at the end of the season, we had a shot at winning that. On the intermediate stuff, I think we got a little bit better than where we started the Chase. We came up with some stuff. We’ve been working on those packages, so I think that we’ve got a direction to be better than where we ended the season.”