Ryan: Can Kyle Busch find his happy place with less horsepower?

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Kyle Busch clearly has a problem with slower cars.

We don’t mean those that got in his way Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver angrily challenged and questioned the racing acumen and credentials of Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.

No, it’s the speed in his own No. 18 Toyota that seems to have left Busch miffed many times during a season of too much discontent for the mercurial superstar.

It’s been almost a year since the die was cast on perhaps the most controversial competition decision during Busch’s 15 seasons of racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

The move in 2019 to a lower horsepower, higher downforce package (i.e., slower and more stable cars with 550 hp on big speedways and 750 on shorter tracks) – a sudden reversal after years of heading mostly in the opposite direction – initially wasn’t met well within the ranks, and Busch was among many big-name drivers who voiced staunch opposition.

A case can be made that a reason behind the dissolution of the Drivers Council was its inefficacy in blunting the momentum for adopting a rules configuration that inherently affects the ability to harness a 3,400-pound stock with first-class hand-eye coordination and throttle control.

But the public grumbling gradually has subsided this season. Many stopped swimming against the strong tide, choosing to focus on their teams’ results or simply swallow their pride and accept the new rules.

The most notable resistance remained from Busch, the driver who arguably has had the most success with the 2019 rules package as anyone.

It’s somewhat remarkable that Busch, the regular-season champion who entered the playoffs with four wins and a 45-point cushion that likely will carry him to the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the fifth consecutive year, would be the most high-profile remaining holdout on buying into the package, which mostly was aimed at producing closer racing at 1.5-mile tracks such as Vegas (and at least seems to achieve that on restarts, more on that below).

But it’s also perfectly understandable in the context of Busch wanting to maximize a skillset tailored to outdrive anyone when the challenge is taming stock cars that aren’t glued to the pavement as much as they are in 2019.

When Busch pouts (as he did after Vegas) that it’s impossible to pass at any track anymore (mostly because of aerodynamic turbulence for a trailing car), he is both wrong (in that winning teammate Martin Truex Jr. proved Sunday that you still can gain positions) and right (in that Busch can’t advance through the field using the same manhandling style he once did).

That makes it doubly frustrating for an already emotionally charged personality who can fly off the handle even faster than he drives.

“Kyle is just plain and simple unhappy,” analyst Jeff Burton said in the NASCAR on NBC Splash & Go weekly feature Tuesday (video above). “He wants to race a certain way, and that’s not the way we’re racing. He’s going to have to find a way to get above it. He’s going to have to find a way to focus on performance and championships and do the things that he is so good at.

“I think Kyle has convinced himself that the things he’s so good at he can no longer do, but I’ve watched from the best seat in the house every week, and people do pass and people do find a way to make things happen, but they do it differently than two years ago. I feel bad for him because he is a hell of a race car driver. He wants to drive the thing a certain way, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. He’s going to have to find a way to embrace it, but it’s obviously hard for him to do.”

This is immaterial, by the way, to how Busch carried himself with his infamous truculence as he faced a barrage of questions (mostly fair and well-stated, by the way) after Sunday’s race.

Like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt before him (and Smoke’s unhappiness in 2004, when he clashed often with officials and peers, is reminiscent of the current situation for Rowdy), churlishness is a byproduct of Busch’s greatness … and for some fans, it’s also part of his appeal. Even if he were completely happy with the racing, there always will be regrettable moments in the media bullpen after a race that breaks badly for Busch.

It’s his essence, and it’s unfair to ask him to be someone else, especially when the biggest casualties of his combativeness are reporters’ feelings.

On the scale of bad behavior across professional sports, Busch has been a relative choirboy.

Should he be more cognizant that postrace interviews are as much about serving fans as the media (which often is the conduit to Rowdy Nation)?

Perhaps, but if he wants to be that way and can live with potential consequences (whether the ire of series officials or sponsors), he shouldn’t be asked to change by NASCAR and a fan base that wants its drivers candid and colorful.

Busch meets those standards better than any current star (in the right mood, his interviews are articulate, insightful and steeped in history). His issues with the package aren’t about his personality or how it’s been impacted.

The much bigger concern is how the dissatisfaction with 550 horsepower affects his performance behind the wheel. From when he hit the wall in the opening laps while apparently pushing the envelope after starting 20th, Busch was the weak link in the No. 18 team at Las Vegas (as Steve Letarte said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast).

That rarely happens with Busch, an elite talent who probably could have become a champion in any series he chose to race anywhere in the world.

But it has been true too many times this season as the 2015 series champion has seemed a victim of distracted driving on a semi-regular basis.

He hit the wall with the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two months ago and also seemed way off his game at Watkins Glen International with errors in the Xfinity and Cup races. On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Letarte said Busch’s problems with the lapped cars at Vegas were self-induced.

Drivers make mistakes, but these have been uncharacteristic for Busch, who is 13 races and more than three months removed from his most recent win.

There’s a NASCAR saying that drivers sometimes need to slow down in order to go faster.

But asking Kyle Busch to celebrate driving at medium instead of maximum power seems sacrilege.

It’s no wonder he’s struggling with it.


Chase Elliott’s move to slow down and help Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron under caution on Lap 181 was legal, but it came some risk and raises some interesting questions, as NASCAR on NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton (above) explained.

After spinning in Turn 4, Byron was able to enter the pits immediately to change his flat left-side tires. But he stayed on the lead lap only because Elliott eased off the accelerator while leading and allowed the No. 24 Chevrolet to exit the pits ahead of the No. 9.

Though slowing to at least 200 feet behind the pace car, Elliott hadn’t been picked up yet as the leader under the yellow flag. Joey Logano, running second, actually accelerated past Elliot just past the finish line.

Though Burton advocated Logano speeding up even earlier to put greater pressure on NASCAR to make a call on whether Elliott was maintaining reasonable speed as the leader, NASCAR officials later relayed to Burton that Elliott would have remained in first even if Logano had made a more demonstrable challenge (because Elliott would have been ruled to be using a “cautious pace” to catch up to the pace car.

Still, NASCAR has penalized leaders for failure to maintain reasonable speed under yellow (notably Marcos Ambrose stalling on a hill at Sonoma Raceway in June 2010). And if Byron hadn’t been a teammate, or if it had been later in the playoffs, Elliott might have been on the pace car’s rear bumper to ensure trapping him a lap down.

“Chase Elliott has the ability to set that cautious pace,” Letarte said on the new playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Did he set it to save William Byron a lap? Absolutely.

“I see a teammate playing nicer earlier in the playoff than perhaps we would have seen. If Hendrick Motorsports was dominant with 15 or 18 wins, I think Chase doesn’t care about (Byron) and tries to pin him because he sees him as (a threat). It shows perhaps Hendrick in their struggles, their relationship has been galvanized where they’re looking out for one another.”


Daniel, we hardly knew yet, but it’s fairly obvious what is coming next.

Ever since team owner Richard Childress essentially volunteered that Tyler Reddick was destined for a Cup ride during a July 30 interview, it was clear that Daniel Hemric was in trouble during a disappointing rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. Asked a few days later about Childress’ comments, Hemric seemed less than certain about his future at the team.

It also isn’t clear if the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native will remain in Cup, though there are a few lesser rides that could come open.

Hemric is unlikely to be considered for a potential top-flight opening next season, and the only vacancy likely would be at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has yet to confirm Clint Bowyer or Daniel Suarez as returning and probably would move in Cole Custer if either leaves. Things seem to be trending well for Bowyer, who won his first pole position in 12 years after making the playoffs and was ebullient in Vegas until his 25th place finish.

Suarez also ran well before finishing 20th after contact with Joey Logano, qualifying second and leading 29 laps. But he said he had no timeframe for learning if he would return to SHR for a second year. The past two seasons, the team has waited until the offseason to hire its No. 41 Ford driver.

“We’ll still working on a couple of things,” Suarez said of 2020. “We have some good opportunities sponsorship-wise. There are some good things coming, but you never know. This sport is extremely unpredictable. We’ll just have to take one day at a time.”

Though making the playoffs would have helped, Suarez believes he can make up for it with a  victory: “The past is the past. We can’t change that. What we can change is we have 10 more weeks to keep improving. We have nothing in our heads but to get wins. If we are able to make it to victory lane this year, I won’t even think about the playoffs. Who cares about the playoffs if we can make it to victory lane? If we win one of the next 10, believe me, nobody will remember that we didn’t make the playoffs.”


Also unsure of his status for next year is Ross Chastain, who is focused on trying to win a truck championship with team owner Al Niece.

“I got nothing” for next year, Chastain said last week. “No one is calling now to put me in a fast Cup car. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m racing my butt off trying to be the best I can be. I’ve got so much opportunity now.  I’ve got more races on the Xfinity side to compete and run up front. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m making my living, paying my bills by driving race cars as fast as I can. And I’m driving for multiple people, and they all want me to drive.”

Chastain has maintained a working relationship at Chip Ganassi Racing despite losing an Xfinity ride with the team because of an offseason sponsor pullout. He said his job for now in Cup when he races for underfunded Premium Motorsports is “to not make the news or crash the car. Even if I don’t crash, getting in someone’s way or being in the leader’s way coming down to the end or hitting someone on pit road. All that stuff you think it’s easy, but it’s so hard to be a slow car. It’s hard. I learned a lot in doing it, and it helps when I get in something that’s fast.”


When the first NASCAR Playoff Media Day without Jimmie Johnson happened, the seven-time series champion took steps to ensure he avoided it.

Johnson shifted the days of a mountain bike trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to forget being sidelined from championship contention with 10 races remaining for the first time in his 18 Cup seasons. Though hitting the trails helped, he couldn’t avoid seeing glimpses of the 16 playoff drivers making the rounds in Las Vegas when he opened social media last Thursday.

“Not being there, it stung,” Johnson said. “It’s probably good that it stung. It’s been a nice gut check for me. I should be part of that. I want to be part of that. All those things are there. In a weird way, I was glad to see the 16 drivers and all that went along with that.”

The goal the rest of the season for Johnson, who turned 44 Tuesday two days after an 11th at Vegas, is to end a two-year winless drought.

“We just have to put a stake in the ground that we’ve got to win,” he said. “We just need to see progress at a rapid pace in the right direction. We were making progress, but the sport evolves, the team evolves, and we need to take big chunks out of that gap. That’s ultimately what we need to do. If we continue to take chunks out of the gap as we have, we’ll ultimately be back in victory lane.

“It hurts not being in the playoffs. It really bothers me, but at the end of the day, it’s good to have that effect on me. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m mad I’m not in the playoffs. I’m going to use that as fuel to push us through and get us back to where we need to be.”


For this observer, Las Vegas offered the chance to watch the 550 horsepower package from a fresh vantage point. Here were a few modest observations from the 1.5-mile speedway’s frontstretch press box near the start-finish line:

–The term “Insane Restarts” (or crazy, or even psychotic, if you prefer) gets tossed around so much it probably should be trademarked, but the first few laps after every green flag are breathtaking – better than a classic restrictor-plate race at Daytona or Talladega, really.

–Five laps or so after the restart, though, the racing looked like it has for the bulk of 1.5-mile tracks for the last 25 years.

–If you’re looking, you can find passing throughout the field … just not necessarily at the point.

When Las Vegas Motor Speedway made its Cup debut on March 1, 1998 (a race also covered by this writer), it was met with mixed reviews before a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 that had been promised “insane” five-wide racing for three hours. Instead, the fans saw largely a snoozefest won by Mark Martin in which Fords took 13 of the top 15 spots and the yellow flew only twice (both for single-car spins).

Sunday’s race was much better and memorable than the debut 21 years ago, but when viewed through the prism of NASCAR’s incessant tinkering to enhance 1.5-mile racing, it loses luster. Witness the recent ranking in journalist Jeff Gluck’s poll.

Las Vegas was a crucial marker in the development of the 550 hp package because of a January test that produced spectacularly tight racing and raised hopes that this season’s races might replicate it for two to three hours at a time.

It hasn’t and probably for myriad reasons. Tests rarely simulate real-world conditions with the necessary accuracy, and teams have spent so much time developing car builds since then (and through the different routes of gaining downforce or lessening drag), that there’s likely much more disparity between drivers.

As discussed on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast, though, the conclusion here is that three straight hours of “Insane Restarts” probably would be too much of a good thing anyway.

Short of adding more mandatory cautions to guarantee re-racking the field (that’s not a suggestion, by the way), there probably is little more that can be done to enhance racing at the ubiquitous multipurpose speedways that began littering the Cup schedule in the mid to late 1990s.

If NASCAR wants more slam-bang tight racing that is true to its roots, the solution is much simpler: Run more short tracks instead of trying to retrofit 1.5-mile ovals that always will produce a brand of racing regardless of what is done to the cars.


After qualifying Morgan Shepherd’s car in ninth with a lap for the “Qualifying Hall of Fame” (according to NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr.), will Landon Cassill start more Xfinity races for Shepherd, who seems to be winding down his driving career?

“I’ll let him dictate that,” Cassill said of Shepherd, who turns 78 next month. “I talk to him a lot, and he’s very mindful of his future and what he wants to build. I think me driving and having some speed in his car has been a part of it. He could see himself as a car owner someday probably.”

Cassill, who made 20 laps at Vegas and finished 36th for Shepherd, also posted top-20 qualifying efforts in the No. 89 Chevrolet at Charlotte (13th) and Michigan (16th). The relationship with Shepherd began when Cassill qualified the car 24th in the 2018 season finale after it lacked speed to make the race in practice.

“He called me the hour before qualifying and asked me to hop in,” said Cassill, who was introduced to Shepherd by Xfinity team owner Johnny Davis. “Ever since then, built a relationship and a lot of trust in each other, and he’s asked me to drive it whenever I’m available.

“It definitely makes me feel good to run that well. The experience really helps me a lot and running both (Cup and Xfinity) helps a lot. The speed in his car for Morgan is encouraging. He’s trying to envision what he’s doing for the future. I think having that speed in his car can draw attention to sponsors and putting forth a full-time effort.”


Next season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway will move from opening the playoffs the past two years to opening the second round.

Though the Sept. 27 race will be nearly two weeks later and likely in cooler weather, it’s expected the track will keep the 7 p.m. ET starting time. Out of the oppressive early afternoon heat, the grandstands seemed less empty than then 2018 race, which started shortly at 3 p.m. ET.

Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, lineup and more

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The playoff field will be whittled to eight drivers today at Kansas Speedway, where the second-round cutoff race of the 2019 Cup playoffs will occur over 400 miles.

Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are locked into the third round, and Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick seem strong bets to advance. Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (plus 18 points in the final transfer spot) also have a cushion on the cutoff.

That puts Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer and William Byron in virtual must-win situations to advance to the third round.

Here is the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Actor Jensen Ackles will give the command to start engines at 2:37 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:48 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage will open at 10:30 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 1:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:30 p.m. by Lt. Col Randy Croft, Whiteman Air Force Base. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:31 p.m. by Eric Roosevelt.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. The postrace show will be on NBCSN at 6 p.m., followed by Victory Lap at 6:30 p.m.

Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 63 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: A year ago, Chase Elliott led the final 44 laps for his third and final victory of the season. Brad Keselowski won the May 11 race here, outdueling Alex Bowman in the closing laps. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

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Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

A Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman said Reddick and Custer talk led later in the garage as their cars went through postrace inspection.

There also were postrace tweets from Custer and from Reddick.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).