‘I’m not the top dog’: Kyle Busch embraces challenges of Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As exacting as any champion in NASCAR history, Kyle Busch will be accepting an unusual level of deference in his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona International Speedway.

He will be sharing the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus RC F GT3 with three AIM Vasser Sullivan teammates, which will require compromise on the positioning of seats and pedals (much less the setup).

He will be yielding to the much faster DPI and LMP2 cars on virtually every green-flag lap he makes around the 3.56-mile layout.

He will be adjusting to a braking system that will require a radical new rethinking of his sublime driving style.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch in the 2020 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

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A two-time Cup champion accustomed to knowing exactly what he wants in a race car will be learning on the fly for the first time in years as a 24-hour sports car rookie.

How will Busch adapt to being in his IMSA team’s supporting cast after often being the driving force behind Joe Gibbs Racing?

By embracing his situation with a humility that often isn’t associated with such a brash and mercurial superstar.

“It’s not hard for me, and I say that because I’m not the top dog,” Busch told NBC Sports. “There’s a top dog that’s way better, way smarter, way more experienced at these cars than I am, so I let Jack kind of take the reins.”

Kyle Busch talks with No. 14 co-owner Jimmy Vasser during the Roar (courtesy of IMSA).

“Jack” is Jack Hawksworth, the IndyCar and sports car veteran who has become Busch’s de-facto driving coach for Daytona. Beginning with an intensive five-hour session in a driving simulator last month at Toyota Racing Development in Salisbury, N.C., Busch constantly has cited Hawksworth’s pointers with being invaluable for getting up to speed.

But the learning curve was evident during the Roar before the Rolex test session when Busch initially was 3 seconds per lap off Hawksworth’s pace.

“I thought he did a good job,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a completely different car from anything he’s driven.”

That didn’t stop Busch’s demanding side from playfully peeking out at one point.

“I’ll prod (Hawkwsorth) a little bit when we he’s like, ‘You need to open up your hands, mate, in order to like get the drive off the corner,’ ” Busch said, affecting a British accent with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Well if the car was better I wouldn’t have to open up my hands so how about me tell them to try to fix it a few things for us and make it a little bit better.’ ”

Striving for greatness is the central thrust of Busch’s desire to race the Rolex 24 (coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC on Saturday and includes NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass during the event before concluding from noon – 2 p.m. ET on Sunday on NBC).

He has watched the race draw champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon) and Formula One (Fernando Alonso) as well as Indianapolis 500 winners (Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay).

“It’s pretty cool to watch the different guys that come from be it IndyCar or NASCAR or even V-8 Super Cars or guys from overseas that come over here and give this race a go,” Busch said. “It means a big deal and means a lot to a lot of guys.”

Here are a few of the more difficult aspects of his transition:


Traffic: While being lapped incessantly, Busch will be relying heavily for help in navigating a track that will be jammed with more than three dozen cars for a full day. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is both the largest (18 of the 38 cars in the field) and slowest of the four classes. The DPI and LMP2 cars will be turning laps that are roughly 9 to 12 seconds faster than Busch’s Lexus, which also will be slightly off the pace of the similar GTLM cars.

Tony Hirschman, his longtime spotter in NASCAR, will be relaying information on the type of cars that are coming and the drivers behind the wheel. A system of lights also can help identify the division.

“It’s a bit of an adjustment, for sure, of being able to know what’s coming, who’s coming, what type of car and trying to figure out all of the little tricks of the trade,” Busch said. “The spotter’s communication is a big deal of where they’re at, how fast they’re gaining, knowing the closing rate and trying to figure that out so you can kind of figure out a spot on the track of where you know you’re going to be clear. I imagine in the race when there’s a heck of a lot of them coming at you in a hurry that it’s going to be a bit trickier.”

Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, who raced in the top division of the Rolex the past seven years, said he always was glad to be driving the faster car while tiptoeing through the GT battles in the middle of the night.

“It’s mayhem,” Taylor said. “They’re glued together half the race. Which he (Busch) used to, but it’s going to be different. He’s got to share the car, it’s 24 hours. It’s so easy to get in the middle without getting caught up in a battle with one guy. Those sorts of things still happen to me after like 10 years of this race. I’ll get caught up in something and realize, “Why am I doing this?”

“He’ll have those same moments of battling someone and say, ‘This doesn’t matter. I need to relax.’ Or else he’ll get caught up in it.”

The No. 14 Lexus RC-F GT3 during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Two sports car veterans with NASCAR experience believe Busch will be fine as long as he has patience and strategy.

Colin Braun, who became a friend of Busch’s while racing often in the Truck and Xfinity series from 2008-11, said stock-car drivers have the skillset to adjust.

“Racing those guys and seeing how good they are on road courses, and the feel they have for the car on the limit is impressive,’ Braun said. “Those guys are superstars, and a guy like Jimmie Johnson showed that many times coming into Grand Am DP cars back in the day. I have no doubt a guy like Kyle is going to be really, really fast. When I first went into NASCAR, being fast wasn’t the issue. It was just the experience.

“A guy like Kyle I don’t think has been passed by eight prototype cars lined up nose to tail while working through the GTLM field, so I think the experience is toughest the thing to gain.”

Andy Lally, a five-time Rolex 24 winner who spent the 2011 season in the NASCAR Cup Series, said “the biggest thing coming from a racing series that races one class of car is that when you’re at Daytona and it’s 24 hours long and you’re interacting with four different races going on at the same time.

“There is definitely a way to strategize getting by and getting people by you to make it efficient so that your lap time is staying consistent. It’s impossible to rail off qualifying laps while Prototypes are coming by while you’re fighting with cars in class. But there’s definitely an efficient way to get it by for both speed and safety.”


Technology: Busch will have some new toys to employ: An antilock braking system (ABS) and traction control, neither of which is available in NASCAR.

It theoretically should allow for much better handling, but it also will require Busch retraining himself to trust a car that is lighter, sleeker and more responsive than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

There’s a lot of driver assist with (sports) cars,” Busch said. “Being able to abuse the heck out of the car and just drive the living snot out of it into the corners, braking as late as you can, as hard as you can, getting right to the ABS limit then trailing your brake and getting ready for the apex and all that sort of stuff.

“It’s very, very different than what we’re accustomed to in NASCAR with our cars not having any of that stuff. You’ve got to make sure you’re mindful of all that. Here, it’s a completely different pace.”

How different? In NASCAR, drivers are rewarded for managing their brakes at a short track such as Martinsville Speedway, keeping them cool enough to last 500 laps.

In sports cars, it’s virtually the opposite. As Taylor explained, ABS allows drivers to “stand on (the brakes) as hard as you want, and it just does everything for you. It’s like a video game, but it’s hard to wrap your head around being able to brake and not worry about it. (Busch) has driven his whole career locking up brakes and adjusting brake pressures, and now he doesn’t have to, so it’s going to be weird.

“Some guys late in their careers can’t adjust to that because their muscle memory is so in tune.”

Taylor was teamed with Jeff Gordon on the 2017 overall winner at the Rolex 24, and he said the four-time series champion actually drove under the limits of his traction control because he hadn’t used it during a two-decade career.

“ABS is the weirdest thing to drive with; I don’t like it,” Taylor said. “There will be some weird little things that Busch is going to learn that sports car racing has.”


Driver changes: There will be multiple stints for Busch in the car he is sharing with Hawksworth, Parker Chase and Michael de Quesada, which will mean some frenzied swaps behind the wheel.

Though teams often practice how to make a driver change before the race, it’s difficult to simulate the race conditions that necessitate scrambling into a cramped cockpit under duress and then go full bore back on track.

Busch is familiar with accomplishing the switch in a race, having run a four-hour race at Daytona nearly 12 years ago.

“It’s a very choreographed effort,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you know what you’re ready for and doing. As I’ve already made my practice runs, I’ve been working on where I got to get the belts and everything when I come down, to get ready to get out.”

Kyle Busch debriefs during testing (courtesy of IMSA).

Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends celebration by Denny Hamlin, No. 11 team

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. defended Denny Hamlin and his team’s celebration after winning Monday’s Daytona 500 as safety crews attended to Ryan Newman after Newman’s last-lap accident.

Hamlin and said he didn’t know the severity of Newman’s accident immediately. Car owner Joe Gibbs said the team muted their festivities in victory lane after they found out more about Newman’s situation.  

“I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, well, these guys are celebrating when there’s a serious issue going on,” Gibbs said. “I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know.”

Earnhardt, speaking on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, said he understood what Hamlin and his team were going through. He spoke on the 19th anniversary of his father’s fatal crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“That was just so unfortunate the fallout from that,” Earnhardt said of criticism directed toward the No. 11 team for its celebrating. “I think back to 2001 when dad had his accident and Michael Waltrip had made it all the way to victory lane himself and celebrating what he feels like was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him.

“I think I can tell you … how that process can happen, how what happened with Denny and his team can easily happen. There’s a lot of other similar situations that are much like that to compare that to that make it understandable to what played out with Denny and his team.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday night that Newman was in serious condition with injuries not considered life threatening. The team announced Tuesday that Newman was awake and speaking with family members and doctors. He remains at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I just can’t stop thinking about Ryan and waiting on more news and more information and when we can see him, when can we physically talk to Ryan and put our own eyes on him and get a chance to see how he’s doing,” Earnhardt said on NASCAR America.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s among the 10 points races he won at Daytona and Talladega. He was asked on the show about how aggressive a driver has to be to win the Daytona 500.

“I always had the most success by always trying to lead the race and it’s not physically possible to lead every single lap … I felt like that was the best defense to being involved in an accident, to being caught up in something in the middle of the pack,” Earnhardt said.

“I tried every different way to run those plate races. For me, that was always the most effective approach. It starts when you show up to the racetrack. You’ve got to be that way in practice. You’ve got to go out there, and you might tick some people off in practice that you’re so aggressive, but you’ve got to show them this is how I’m going to race. On top of that, this is what my car can do, so when the green flag drops you see my car pull out, you have confidence to follow it because you’ve seen what it can do all weekend.

“When I approached the entire race that way and the weekend that way, I really, really had a lot of success with it. Sometimes it doesn’t always work and then you start thinking maybe I’ll take a different route, maybe I’m going to sit in the back and try to take care of myself and maybe work my way up through there late in the race. You start trying different things and maybe you think you need to rethink your entire strategy, but I was always coming back around to being aggressive and having a lot of success with that.

“The only problem with that is it’s hard to do. It’s hard to push yourself to work that hard every foot of the racetrack, every straightaway, every turn, every opportunity, every run the car gets, every opportunity presented to do something with that car, it’s hard to stay on the wheel the entire race because everybody at some point has to take a break, some sort of mental break. I think the ones that can sustain that sort of tenacity and fierce competitiveness has success there.

“You see the same guys up toward the front of those races year after year. I even said it before the end of the race, Denny Hamlin, if he’s not the winner, he’s in the picture when they cross the finish line at a lot of these races at Daytona and Talladega. He proved it again that he’s one of the best. I didn’t know whether he had lost the race or not down the backstraightaway. Somehow or another he never gave up.

“If he wasn’t going to win, he was pushing somebody to the win and he put himself back in the situation of where he ends up getting the checkered flag. That attitude of never quitting, never giving up, working to try to get to the front every single inch of the racetrack is, I think, similar to Denny and what makes him so good.”

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas

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No driver is listed for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford on NASCAR’s preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car is normally driven by Ryan Newman, who is in serious condition with non-life threatening injuries after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 Monday night. Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors.

If Newman does not participate in the race, it would be the first Cup event he’s missed since the start of his full-time career in 2002 (649 starts).

There are 38 entries for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Garrett Smithley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford for his first race of the year.

Reed Sorenson is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last year over Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race over Kevin Harvick and Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series – Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric will make his first start of the year in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson. Tyler Reddick won the playoff race over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series – Strat 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 35 trucks entered.

With a full field limited to 32 trucks, three will not make the race.

Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 51 Toyota for his first of five scheduled Truck Series races this year.

Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Toyota.

Busch won this race last year over Moffitt and Matt Crafton. Busch went on to sweep all five of his series starts last season. Austin Hill won the playoff race over Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Latest on Ryan Newman, Daytona 500

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NASCAR America will have the latest on Ryan Newman after his crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

Krista Voda hosts and will be joined by Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan. The show will include reports from Marty Snider in Daytona Beach and Dave Burns from Roush Fenway Racing.

Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also will call in.

Today’s show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.