Ryan: Title shows there’s more to love about Kyle Busch than ever


HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When Kyle Busch faces the crowd from a makeshift stage on a racetrack’s frontstretch, his knowing grin usually isn’t returned as warmly as it was Sunday night.

A mass of humanity excitedly pushed toward the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, craning to get closer to where Busch held aloft the first Sprint Cup trophy of his career. Clad in the colors of various NASCAR drivers, mostly those of Jeff Gordon, they indiscriminately lunged to catch dozens of lime-green packets of M&Ms and T-shirts embossed with “18 Champs” that wildly were hurled into the crowd by Busch’s team members.

The gifts were met with broad smiles and lusty cheers – and none of the boos, catcalls or insults typically hurled at an alleged stock-car villain who often draws the most derisive of reactions when introduced on the same type of dais before a race.

Sure, free swag and candy probably help in plying the emotions of easily pleased NASCAR Nation (fans also were begging to be tossed beads and moon pies), but there was another undeniable truth as resolute as Busch’s convincing victory in the Ford 400 that made the unwithering support for NASCAR’s new conquering hero seem genuine.

This wasn’t Kyle Busch, polarizing lightning rod demonized and dissected by many fans who secretly relish having a driver they love to hate.

This was Kyle Busch, a once-petulant kid who became the graceful king.

Sunday’s loudest roar from a crowd of 60,000 was reserved for when Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet took the lead for the final time, but the noise was comparable for the No. 18 Toyota’s celebratory burnout – a tacit acknowledgment that respecting a retiring legend’s greatness didn’t preclude appreciating the potential emergence of the next.

Busch didn’t seem such an unpopular champion, though he wasn’t ready to decree it, either.

“I think becoming a champion doesn’t necessarily change fans’ opinion of you, but I think how you are the sport’s champion will change perception of how people think of you,” he said. “I’m really optimistic and looking forward to being the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and doing all the things that a champion is supposed to do, and maybe that’ll change some more things about me.

“But it’s certainly been a whirlwind season this year, and I think there’s been a lot of change in myself and my family and my team, but yet I think there’s probably still more to go.”

The question is how many more championships to go?

The keen eye that identified the prodigious ability of six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson has singled out Busch as a candidate for embarking on a similar run now that he has the confidence of a breakthrough championship.

“He’s more talented than I am,” Gordon said of Busch, who turned 30 in May but just completed his 11th season. “If he keeps racing the way that he did this year, to me the edge that I always had on Kyle, as talented as he is, as fast as he is, is that sometimes he never knew where to stop pushing the car to the edge, and especially at a track like this when you’re right up against the wall, taking the right side off of it.

“If you can put pressure on him, you can kind of force him to push it over the edge because he’s capable of pushing it so far. But this year I saw a new Kyle Busch and one that he held back at the times when he needed to, and that’s important.”

There were no snickers in the news conference at Gordon’s mention of “new Kyle Busch,” a tired NASCAR narrative that has prompted Twitter memes and parody accounts for years. Over a series of agonizing flops in the Chase (his previous best finish in points was fourth), Busch constantly struggled to recalibrate his game and maximize the boundless skill that once made him the subject of bidding wars between powerhouse teams as a teenager. Every time, the proclamations of newfound maturation behind the wheel and off the track didn’t stick.

This time, his reinvention as a world-class racer is real.

And it comes at a time in which there’s more to love about Kyle Busch than ever.

Consider everything that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has endured, enjoyed and overcome just this season:

–The biggest night of his life came nine months and one day after one of the worst when he entered Halfiax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., for extensive surgery on a broken right leg and fractured left foot that threatened his NASCAR career.

–He became a first-time father to Brexton in May, adding an unexpectedly softer and vulnerable side to his brash and irrepressible demeanor (to calm himself during Sunday’s race, Busch hummed his 6-month-old son’s favorite cartoon song — “It’s this little parrot that teaches words.”).

–His famously competitive fire – Busch has 154 wins across NASCAR’s three national series and has sights on reaching 200 – was off the charts despite a three-month absence. In becoming the fourth driver to win a Sprint Cup and Xfinity title (joining Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick), Busch won four times in five Sprint Cup races after missing the first 11 and finished with five victories (his best since 2008). He captured his first Brickyard 400 to cap a two-day sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kyle Busch Motorsports won its first Camping World Truck Series driver’s championship.

“Yeah, no doubt,” Busch said when asked if it was the best year of his life. “I don’t think anything tops this year. This is certainly pretty special.

“I wouldn’t do it without everyone that surrounds me — my wife, my family, my friends, my employees at KBM, Joe, J.D., the team at JGR. It’s just cool to hear all (the accomplishments) rattled off”

There were many other reasons the 2015 championship was compelling.

Toyota won its first Sprint Cup title, capping a eight-year slog through many near-misses and an inauspicious start of scandal and struggle. Joe Gibbs’ fourth crown in big-league stock-car racing surpassed the number of Super Bowls he won as a coach, and his team celebrated its finest season in 22 years while expanding to a four-car powerhouse, rallying despite the diminished role of his son and team president J.D. Gibbs.

But it was Busch’s saga that made it fantastic – so much that even his longtime rival and sometimes bitter foe Harvick seemed elated for him even after being outdueled in trying to defend his championship.

“I think when you race your whole life, and you accomplish what you’ve raced for your whole life, it’s exciting,” said Harvick, who gamely finished second but never mounted a serious challenge to Busch. “I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is. It’s fun to see that excitement.

“That’s a great comeback story from where he was after Daytona.”

Busch fully learned to harness his emotions that once got the better of him during in-race meltdowns. When a debris caution with 10 laps remaining Sunday wiped out his margin on Harvick and possibly his championship, Busch calmly keyed his mic to talk strategy with crew chief Adam Stevens (“I think I just knew the greater picture,” Busch said).

But as much as the mental makeup, he also impressed the NASCAR establishment with his mettle. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who parted with Busch on less than amiable terms eight years ago, was among his biggest supporters, calling and texting regularly to check on his rehabilitation.

“He showed some real guts to be broken up like he did and come back and have to do what he did,” Hendrick said. “He just seemed to mature a ton since the accident and the way he handles himself, the way he races people. If you’re faster than he is now, he’ll pull over.

“I’m really happy for him. He deserves it. He’s going to win a lot of championships. We’ll have to see him for a long time.  … He’s paid his dues in the sport.”

Said Gordon: “What he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never talked to him and got into details about it. But when he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, but you can tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate. I think he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and he came out of it even better than he was before. He showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”

He could be destined to win many more.

For at least one night, reveling in a shower of candy and confetti, much of NASCAR Nation seemed more than OK with that.

NASCAR Friday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The Xfinity Series makes its first appearance Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Xfinity teams, coming off last weekend’s race at Portland International Raceway, get 50 minutes of practice Friday because Sonoma is a new venue for the series.

Seven Cup drivers, including Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, are among those entered in the Xfinity race. Suarez won the Cup race at Sonoma last year.

Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday at the 1.99-mile road course.

Sonoma Raceway


Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Friday 5: Kyle Busch, Randall Burnett forming a potent combination


Crew chief Randall Burnett admits that work remains, pointing to his team’s struggles on short tracks, but what he and Kyle Busch have achieved in their first year together is among the key storylines of this Cup season.

Since moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, Busch has won three races, tying William Byron for most victories this season.

“Our plan is to win a lot with Kyle,” car owner Richard Childress said after Busch won last weekend at WWT Raceway.

Only four times since 2008 has a new driver/crew chief combination won three of the first 15 races in a Cup season.

Busch has been that driver three times. The only other driver to do so in the last 15 years was Mark Martin in 2009 with Alan Gustafson.

Busch won three of the first 15 races in 2008 with Steve Addington. Busch also did so in 2015 with Adam Stevens. Busch went on to win the first of his two Cup championships that season.

What makes Busch’s achievement this year stand out is the limited track time Cup drivers have compared to 2008 and ’15. It wasn’t uncommon then to have three practice sessions per race weekend — totaling more than two hours. That gave new driver/crew chief combinations plenty of time on track and afterward to discuss how the car felt and what was needed.

With one practice session of about 20 minutes most Cup race weekends these days, drivers and crew chiefs don’t have that luxury. They have simulators, and crew chiefs have more data than before, but it can still take time for new partnerships to work.

“We do spend a lot of time on the simulator with Kyle,” Burnett told NBC Sports this week.

Burnett also says that SMT data has helped his understanding of what Busch needs in a car.

“I can watch what is going on during the race and maybe anticipate a little bit of what he’s got going on vs. having to wait for him to describe it to me without kind of doing it blind,” Burnett said.

Burnett admits that as each week goes by, the communication with Busch gets better.

“I’m learning the right adjustments to make when he says a certain thing,” Burnett said. “So, getting that notebook built up a little bit, I think is helping us.”

The pairing of Busch, Burnett and the No. 8 team was intriguing before the season. Burnett helped Tyler Reddick win three races last year. Busch came to RCR motivated to prove that four wins in his final three seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing was an aberration. Busch averaged more than five Cup victories a season from 2015-19.

While the combination of an elite driver and a rising team looked to be a potent match, not everything meshed. Burnett notes that it wasn’t as if the No. 8 team could use all of Reddick’s setups with Busch.

“Kyle likes to drive a little bit tighter race car, while Tyler liked to drive a little bit looser race car,” Burnett said. “We can’t just plug and play everything that we had last year that we had success with. We kind of have got to adapt it and make it work.”

There’s still room for growth. In the last 10 races, Busch has two wins, a runner-up finish, five top 10s but also five finishes of 14th or worse. Busch enters this weekend’s race at Sonoma with three consecutive top-10 finishes, tied for his longest streak of the season.

“We’ve had some really good runs,” Busch said after last weekend’s victory. “We’ve had three wins obviously, which is great, but we’ve also had some of the dismal days as well. We’ve had peaks and valleys so far this year.”

No crew chief, though, has won as often as Burnett has in the last 34 races, dating back to last July’s Road America race. He has six wins during that time. Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Kyle Larson, and Stevens, crew chief for Christoper Bell, are next with four wins each.

Burnett’s victories have come at a variety of tracks. He won on two road courses with Reddick (Road America and Indianapolis) and a 1.5-mile track with Reddick (Texas). Burnett’s victories with Busch have come at a 2-mile track (Fontana), a superspeedway (Talladega) and a 1.25-mile track (WWT Raceway).

“I think the Next Gen car really helped reset our program and kind of took those disadvantages we have had, whether it be aero or something we were missing with our vehicle geometry, whatever it may have been that we were lacking in speed with on the Gen-6 car, the Next Gen car was kind of the great equalizer,” Burnett said.

“I think our group really adapted to that well, and said, ‘OK, now, we’re back on a level playing field. How are we going to stay on top of this? What choices are we going to make? How are we going to make our cars better each week?’ … I think everybody, especially on this No. 8 team, works really well together.”

2. Teaching the way 

Tyler Reddick enters Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway as one of the favorites, having won three of the last five events on road courses, including earlier this season at Circuit of the Americas.

One of the things he learned on his climb to Cup was to have the proper attitude, a lesson he’s trying to teach his son Beau.

“We will have foot races, and he’s so damn competitive,” Reddick told NBC Sports about Beau. “He expects to be able to beat me in a foot race even though he’s 3 years old. When he loses, he loses his mind.

“That takes me back to when I was younger and kind of the same way.”

Reddick said what changed him was when he ran dirt late models.

“I ran those things for five, six years and won only a handful of times,” he said. “I just got my ass kicked all the time by guys that had been racing late models longer than I had been alive. I think you really appreciate the nice days. The days that were tough, I think in a weird way, it helped me manage those tougher days and just go right back to work and get right back into the (proper) mindset.

“I think back, there was definitely a time when I was a lot younger, running outlaw karts and doing all this stuff where like if I didn’t win two out of three classes or three out of the four classes I was running, I was really upset.”

That’s what he sees in his son’s competitive spirit.

Reddick said he noticed his Cup rookie season in 2020 that the attitude he had when younger “started to creep back in a little bit.

“But you know, the way to get out of it is just work harder. … It’s like why get mad when you can just take that, instead of expelling that anger publicly or at the people that are part of your team supporting you, why expel it that way? Just go take that energy and apply it to getting better.”

3. Looking ahead 

Although Aric Almirola signed a multi-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing in August 2022, he told reporters this week that his future plans are “fluid.”

Almirola announced before the 2022 season that it would his final year driving full-time in Cup. He was brought back with sponsor Smithfield with the multi-year deal.

Almirola talked this week about the importance of family. He also said how that would weigh in his plans beyond this season.

“It’s still about making sure that I’m having fun and enjoying driving the race car and making sure that I can be a husband and a father and all those things, and not sacrifice that,” he said.

“I love what I do. I love my job. I love my career, but at the end of the day chasing a little bit more money and more trophies and those things is not what it’s about for me.”

Almirola, who formerly drove for Richard Petty’s team briefly in 2010 and from 2012-17, also shared a story about Petty that impacts him.

“I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Richard, and he doesn’t ever sit down at Thanksgiving with all 200 of his trophies, ever,” Almirola said. “He sits down at Thanksgiving with his family, and he sits down to share a meal with people he cares about.

“All the time I’ve ever gotten to spend with him and talk about things outside of racing and talking about life, he’s been a huge impact on me just being able to recognize and realize that you don’t always have to chase the success, because it doesn’t really define who you are once you stop driving a race car.

“What defines who you are is how you treat other people and how you are with the people you love.”

4. More than $1 million

Last week, I spotlighted how fines for Cup technical infractions were near $1 million this season and the season isn’t half over.

The sport topped $1 million in fines for Cup technical infractions this week. As part of the penalties to Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club for an L1 infraction discovered at the R&D Center, NASCAR fined crew chief Dave Elenz $75,000 and suspended him two races.

Among the top fines this year:

$400,000 ($100,000 to each of the four Hendrick teams) as part of the penalties for modifications to hood louvers at Phoenix.

$250,000 as part of the penalties for the counterfeit part on the Stewart-Haas Racing car of Chase Briscoe. That issue was discovered at the R&D Center after the Coca-Cola 600.

$100,000 as part of the penalties to Kaulig Racing for modification of a hood louver on Justin Haley‘s car at Phoenix.

All the money from fines goes to the NASCAR Foundation.

5. Last year and this year

Something to think about.

Last year after 15 races, there were 11 different winners.

This year after 15 races, there are 10 different winners.

Last year after 15 races, the top six in points were separated by 40 points.

This year after 15 races, the top eight in points are separated by 44 points.

Rick Hendrick hopes rough racing settles down after Chase Elliott suspension


LE MANS, France (AP) — Rick Hendrick fully supports Chase Elliott as he returns from a one-race suspension for deliberately wrecking Denny Hamlin, but the team owner believes on-track aggression has gotten out of control this season and NASCAR sent a message by parking the superstar.

“Until something was done, I think that kind of rough racing was going to continue,” Hendrick told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Elliott missed last week’s race outside St. Louis as the five-time fan-voted most popular driver served a one-race suspension for retaliating against Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The two had made contact several times, with Elliott hitting the wall before he deliberately turned left into Hamlin to wreck him.

Hamlin immediately called on NASCAR to suspend Elliott, which the sanctioning body did despite his star power and the effect his absence from races has on TV ratings. Elliott missed six races earlier this season with a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding crash and NASCAR lost roughly 500,000 viewers during his absence.

Hendrick, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with NASCAR’s special Garage 56 project, told the AP he understood the suspension. NASCAR last year suspended Bubba Wallace one race for intentionally wrecking Kyle Larson, another Hendrick driver.

“Pushing and shoving, it’s a fine line, and when someone puts you out of the race, you get roughed up, emotions take over and you react,” Hendrick said. “I think maybe guys will run each other a little bit cleaner moving forward. “We understand the suspension, and nobody really likes to have to go through that, but you just do it and move on.”

Hendrick said he believes drivers have gotten far too aggressive with the second-year Next Gen car, which has not only tightened the field but is a durable vehicle that can withstand bumping and banging. Contact that used to end a driver’s day now barely leaves a dent.

It’s led to drivers being more forceful and, in Hendrick’s opinion, too many incidents of drivers losing their cool.

“There’s rubbing. But if you just harass people by running them up into the wall, every time you get to them, you get tired of it,” Hendrick said. “And that’s what so many of them do to cause accidents, but then they don’t get in the accident themselves.

“I think everybody understands the rules. But you’ve got an awful lot of tension and when you’re out their racing like that, and you are almost to the finish, and somebody just runs over you for no reason, I think the cars are so close and it’s so hard to pass, they get frustrated.”

Elliott, with seven missed races this season, is ranked 27th in the standings heading into Sunday’s road course race in Sonoma, California. He’s been granted two waivers by NASCAR to remain eligible for the playoffs, but the 2020 champion needs to either win a race or crack the top 16 in standings to make the field.

An outstanding road course racer with seven wins across several tracks, Elliott will be motivated to get his first win of the season Sunday at Sonoma, one of the few road courses on the schedule where he’s winless.

Hendrick said when he spoke to Elliott he urged him to use caution moving forward.

“I just said ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful with that,’” Hendrick said. “But I support him, I really do support him. You get roughed up and it ruins your day, you know, you let your emotions take over.”

Concussion-like symptoms sideline Noah Gragson

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Noah Gragson will not compete in Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway because of concussion-like symptoms he experienced this week after his crash at WWT Raceway, Legacy MC announced Thursday.

Grant Enfinger will drive the No. 42 in place of Gragson.

“Noah’s health is the highest of priorities and we commend him for making the decision to sit out this weekend,” said team co-owners Maury Gallagher and Jimmie Johnson in a statement from the team. “We are appreciative that Grant was available and willing to step in since the Truck Series is off this weekend.”

The team states that Gragson was evaluated and released from the infield care center after his crash last weekend at WWT Raceway. He began to experience concussion-like symptoms mid-week and is seeking treatment.

Gragson is 32nd in the points in his rookie Cup season.

Enfinger is available with the Craftsman Truck Series off this weekend. Enfinger is coming off a victory in last weekend’s Truck race at WWT Raceway for GMS Racing, which is owned by Gallagher. That was Enfinger’s second Truck win of the season.