Adam Stevens

Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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NASCAR America: Kyle Busch can afford to lose interim crew chief for Daytona

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Kyle Busch may have yet another view in his ear this weekend when he races in the Coke Zero 400.

Interim crew chief Ben Beshore may be suspended for the race after two unsecured lug nuts were found on the No. 18 Toyota after the Sonoma race.

The possible loss of Beshore comes after Busch’s usual crew chief, Adam Stevens, was suspended four races for a wheel falling off Busch’s car following a pit stop at Dover.

Daytona will be the fourth race of that suspension. NASCAR America’s analysts discussed the impact of the possible suspension for Busch, who is still looking for his first win since July of last year.

“They’re not making mistakes, they’re just finding themselves in difficult positions,” Dale Jarrett said. “This is certainly another one of those, going to a race track Kyle Busch can win at. But who you have on that pit box means a lot as for performing all through a race.”

Said Jeff Burton, “The frustration level is mounting, obviously. Kyle Busch is expecting to win races. … I think if you’re going to lose your crew chief, this is probably the race you want to lose it for. Going to Daytona, you pretty much have a plan going there. The pit strategy will be interesting with the stages, but if I was going to a race track, this would be the race I’d feel most comfortable without my crew chief.”

Watch the above video for the full segment.

What a long strange trip this season already has been for Kyle Busch

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At this rate, it won’t be long before someone comes up with a parody version of “12 Days of Christmas” for Kyle Busch.

A little more than a third of the way through the Cup season, Busch is accumulating quite a list to count down. Consider:

Seven top-10s finishes.

A six-word press conference.

Five top-five finishes.

Four-race suspensions (for his crew chief, rear tire changer and rear tire carrier).

Three races lost (in the final 10 laps).

Two catchphrases (“Everything is great’’ and “I’m not surprised about anything.’’)

And a memorable mic drop … or punch thrown … or bloody forehead … or commitment line violation … or All-Star win.

The former champion has packed more into 14 races than some drivers do in a year. Or two.

Despite the hurdles, Busch is fourth in the points heading into this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway.  Of concern, though, is that Busch’s woes have left him with only four playoff points. Nine drivers have more playoff points — earned through stage wins or race victories — than Busch.

While Busch was challenged to make the Chase after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season, he went on to win the title. The challenge this year is different.

This isn’t about his body healing but his mind.

What’s happened to Busch this season can only add to the frustration from last year. He’s gone 30 races since his last Cup victory. For a driver who knows how close he is to 200 total wins in Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series (he’s at 173), a winless drought of more than 10 months in Cup can be aggravating.

It’s not just him. His three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also have yet to win a points race this season. Busch has been close with multiple near-misses and leading 703 laps, second only to Martin Truex Jr. (876 laps led).

Many in the sport say momentum can play a key role in a team’s success. Strong runs can prove uplifting to team members and carry them and their driver through the tasks they face. Poor or frustrating results can wear on a driver and team.

That’s the challenge for Busch and his team in what has been a season full of lowlights and soundbites of frustration.

It started in the Daytona 500 when a tire issue caused Busch to spin and collect Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth and Ty Dillon.

“Obviously, Goodyear tires just aren’t very good at holding air,’’ Busch told Fox.

Two weeks later, Busch was in a bigger controversy. A last-lap duel with Joey Logano led to contact that spun Busch and cost him a top-five spot (he finished 22nd). Afterward, Busch walked up pit road to Logano and immediately swung at his competitor. Busch missed. In the ensuing melee, he fell to the ground and cut his forehead. With blood trickling down his forehead, he was led away.

“I got dumped,” Busch told Fox. “Flat out wrecked me. That’s how Joey races. He’s going to get it.”

The following week, Logano made Busch miserable again, but in a more indirect way. Logano blew a tire and crashed to bring out the final caution with Busch leading. Busch gave up the lead to pit for two tires. Ryan Newman stayed out, inherited the lead and held it the final six laps.

It was one of three times that Busch has lost the lead in the final 10 laps. He lost the lead on the last lap at Talladega and watched Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrate his first career Cup win. Busch lost the lead with 10 laps to go to Ryan Blaney last weekend at Pocono. Blaney went on to score his first career Cup series win.

Busch finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 but walked away upset with that result. Austin Dillon scored his first career Cup victory, winning on a fuel gamble. A frustrated Busch performed his now-famous mic drop in the media center after that race.

“Different people show their emotions in different way,’’ Busch said five days later at Dover. “Unfortunately for me, mine has never been very gracious, and I don’t know if it will ever be.’’

Busch won the pole at Dover but saw his race change dramatically on Lap 18 of the 400-lap race. The jackman dropped the jack, signaling Busch to exit his pit stall, but the left rear wheel had not been attached. Busch sped away and the tire rolled off. The Cup Rule Book states that a wheel coming off a car is a four-race suspension for the crew chief, along with the tire changer and tire carrier responsible. They’ll be able to return for the July 8 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Other issues include his runner-up finish at Martinsville after he lost a duel with Brad Keselowski. Earlier in that race, Stenhouse moved Busch out of the way on the final lap of the second stage. Busch moved up the track, allowing Chase Elliott to slip by to win the stage and the playoff point.

Richmond also was frustrating for Busch. Running second, Busch followed Logano on to pit road on Lap 378 of the 400-lap race. Logano turned late on to pit road and just crossed the commitment line. Busch followed but his right side tires ran over the orange box at the end of the commitment line. The rule states that a driver must have all four tires below the box. NASCAR penalized Busch, who had to start at the tail end of the field. Instead of vying for the win, he finished 16th.

In this season of chaos, Busch did win but it doesn’t count as an official victory since the All-Star Race is a non-points event.

“Hopefully this is a little bit of momentum, a little bit of wind in our sails, something we can build on,’’ crew chief Adam Stevens said at the time.

The only thing they’ve been able to build on the past two races is disappointment. The question is how much longer will it last?

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NASCAR America: Winless streak continues for Kyle Busch after pit strategy backfires

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It’s been a long time – 30 races in fact – since Kyle Busch won a NASCAR Cup race.

That streak continued Sunday when Busch stayed out during the final caution period, putting him on older tired for the final 13 laps.

It resulted in Busch unsuccessfully fending off Ryan Blaney and being passed for the lead with 10 laps to go in the Pocono 400.

NASCAR America analyst Slugger Labbe gave his thoughts on the strategy which he believes was likely decided on by Adam Stevens, who was serving the first of a four-race suspension while Ben Beshore sat on the pit box.

“With technology the way it is I’m sure Adam was in connection with the race team,” Labbe said. “It might have been a different call if he was on the pit box using the TV monitors from end of pit road to make a better decision. … (Busch) was a sitting duck. If the 18 had pitted, (Martin Truex Jr.) probably would have stayed out. They were in a no-win situation.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion about the No. 18 team’s pit strategy its recent setbacks.

 

Kyle Busch, interim crew chief Ben Beshore off to a strong start

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Kyle Busch keeps driving strong, but adversity keeps proving to be stronger.

Busch has not won a NASCAR Cup race in 29 starts, his most recent points-paying triumph coming in last summer’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s one of the longest winless streaks of Busch’s Cup career.

Thus far this season, he’s had five top-five finishes, including runner-up showings at Martinsville and Charlotte and third-place showings at Phoenix and Talladega.

But adversity has had the upper hand in several races, as well. There were DNF’s at Daytona and Bristol and a 22nd-place performance at his home track in Las Vegas.

And let’s not forget the embarrassing situation last week at Dover. Busch started from the pole and had what appeared to be a very strong car.

Kyle Busch and interim crew chief Ben Beshore combined Friday to earn the pole for Sunday’s Pocono 400 NASCAR Cup race at Pocono Raceway.

But when an air gun mistake caused a tire not to be attached and fell off as Busch pulled away from pit road, it was arguably the costliest bit of adversity this season.

While Busch managed to rally to finish 16th at Dover, the loose tire episode cost him crew chief Adam Stevens, regular rear tire carrier Kenneth Barber and rear tire changer Jacob Seminara – all three suspended by NASCAR for the next four races for the tire incident.

“It was human error, an accident,” Busch said. “The (air) gun didn’t get flipped from reverse to forward and it’s just part of it.

“Human error, I make mistakes all the time and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) makes mistakes all the time. We just have to live through it.

“That’s a big penalty and it’s unfortunate that we have to live through it. The way the rule was written, it’s intent of the rule wasn’t quite what transpired there, but we live and die by the rule book I guess so the consequences are there.”

Stevens isn’t just Busch’s crew chief, he’s also become a close confidant and friend since assuming his spot on the No. 18 pit box at the start of the 2015 season.

Their relationship extends well past the racetrack, and it’s led not only to a NASCAR Cup championship in 2015, but also nine Cup wins for the No. 18 team.

“Adam is the reason why we are successful,” Busch said. “He puts together a game plan and we learn how to be able to go through the weekend without him.

“It’s just an unfortunate circumstance with our team. But we’re strong and a good group and we’ll continue to focus on what we need to. That’s all we can do.”

In place of Stevens as crew chief for the next four races will be Ben Beshore. He’s far from a stranger to Busch: he’s the No. 18 team’s chief engineer.

In the first day of working together Friday, during the first practice session of the weekend as well later in the afternoon in NASCAR Cup qualifying, Busch and Beshore worked very well together, resulting in Busch earning the pole for the second straight race.

“So far, so good and to come out here gives us the No. 1 pit selection and gives us the track position to start, but we have to keep it,” Busch said. “As we saw last week, we definitely missed the eight-ball on that and screwed it up pretty early in the race and knocked ourselves down and out almost.”

In a way, there’s a kind of juxtaposition with the current circumstances for Busch and Stevens, who had to learn how to succeed for 11 races when Busch was sidelined with a broken right leg and fractured left foot during a crash in the 2015 Xfinity Series season opener.

Now, Busch has to learn how to succeed for four races without Stevens.

“I think it will be hard,” Busch said. “We’ll do what we need to do. … To work as hard as we do and do what we do without him, it’s going to be fun because it is a challenge.

“But it’s also sad at the same time because you have to be without one of your main people.”

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