Friday 5: Searching for answers to Kyle Busch’s struggles

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Denny Hamlin understands Kyle Busch’s frustrations. Hamlin also knows a way past those feelings.

The path, though, is challenging.

Hamlin relates to his teammate’s angst because Hamlin went winless in 2018, ending a streak of 12 years in a row with at least a Cup victory. He has followed that season by winning 13 races since, tying Kevin Harvick for most Cup victories in that span.

Hamlin’s results didn’t change just because the calendar did.

“You have to look at yourself, and every person on the team,” Hamlin said of what he went through during his winless drought. “You have to find all your faults. You have to figure out where you can be better as a driver, where can you be better as a leader, where you can be better as a team.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of work going on, and a lot of analyzing going on figuring out why the results have been what they have been. It’s not all just luck. Luck is just a stupid word in racing.

“You’ve got to analyze and figure out where your deficits are and go to work on them, and then sometimes, it’s how you respond that makes you a great leader or not. It’s how do you respond to it when you do have a tough year or a tough week or a tough race. The response is the most important part, not necessarily the immediate result.”

MORE: Kansas weekend schedule  

How Busch responds could help define the next few years for the two-time series champion who is bound for the NASCAR Hall of Fame after his driving career ends.

His talent is unquestioned. Hamlin admits that “there’s not one driver out there that doesn’t think that Kyle can win any given week.”

Busch’s desire to win is resolute. Look at how he came back from injuries that sidelined him the first 11 races of the season and won the 2015 Cup title.

But it’s the leadership aspect that could help the 35-year-old Busch in his quest for more championships.

His emotions can be raw. His style can be blunt. His anger can be overwhelming. It’s a combination that can provide juicy soundbites that hang over him.

Kyle Busch (left) and crew chief Adam Stevens (center) have won two Cup titles and 27 races together since 2015. The only active driver/crew chief combination with more victories in that time is Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers with 30 wins.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Busch punctuated his runner-up finish at Bristol at the end of the opening round of the playoffs by saying: “We’ll be eliminated in the next round.”

That’s not the most encouraging comment for anyone who works at Joe Gibbs Racing and has a role in how Busch’s cars perform.

A couple of weeks later, Busch said he would “fight like hell” to avoid elimination, but he failed to advance past the second round.

This marks the first time in six seasons that Busch will not race for a championship in the season finale. It wasn’t a fluke he was eliminated earlier than any other reigning champion since the playoff format debuted in 2014. The performance was not good enough.

“You go out there and try each and every week,” Busch said. “There’s certainly been times this year where I thought, man, there’s something wrong with me, I’m not doing it right, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or the car is not quite right. Or I’m not trusting what the car is really doing and telling, and I should drive it harder and then I’m crashed. I don’t know what to think.

“Certainly it would be nice to score a win. To have a win for this year, that would be the only consolation prize for the way this year has gone.”

Busch’s streak of 15 consecutive seasons with at least a victory is in jeopardy of ending. Asked about his chances of winning any of the final four races this season, Busch said last weekend: “I don’t think we even have a shot.”

He has only one win in the last 54 Cup races — the championship race at Miami last year. Nine drivers have won more races than Busch in that 54-race stretch.

“They really overachieved to win that championship,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said in a recent Splash & Go video segment. “I say that as a compliment. They didn’t have the speed in the second half of last year, but they found a way.

“But you can’t do that every year. You can’t do that through a whole season. Really in my eyes, it’s a year and a half of them not running the way we expect them to run.”

Even if Busch wins a race before the season ends, it only keeps the streak alive. The question remains how can the No. 18 team struggle to win.

That’s what Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens, executives at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have to solve.

The issue isn’t just on one person. Toyota’s eights wins this year put it on pace to for its fewest victories in a season since 2014. Other than Hamlin’s seven wins this year, the only other victory by a Toyota driver came from teammate Martin Truex Jr. in June at Martinsville. David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said earlier this month that “as a manufacturer, we haven’t done as good a job as the Ford guys in particular. That’s on me.”

Ford has won a series-high 17 Cup races this season.

But even with Toyota’s struggles, Hamlin has found a way to win.

Hamlin said his climb from zero wins in 2018 to 13 in the past two years is, in part, due to tedious work.

You have to go through a lot of data, a lot of film to make it happen, but that’s just the way the world is nowadays,” Hamlin said of fixing flaws. “If you want to perform at a top level, you have to do it. Natural talent only takes you so far. You have to put in a lot of work to be at the top of your profession. It took me later in my career to learn that, and I think I started seeing results from it.”

2. Race for two spots?

The expectation before the postseason began was that Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin would make it to the championship race because of all the playoff points they accrued.

Both have added to their total in the playoffs. Harvick enters Sunday’s Round of 8 opener at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) atop the points. Harvick is there after earning 67 playoff points. Hamlin is second with 54 playoff points.

Brad Keselowski has failed to finish in the top 10 in the four races since his Richmond playoff win. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Harvick has a 45-point lead on Joey Logano, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race. Hamlin is 32 points ahead of Logano.

So is the expectation that Harvick and Hamlin will make it to the championship race and the other six playoff drivers will vie for the final two spots?

“It feels that way,” said Brad Keselowski, who is third in the standings. “Yeah, it feels that way. Denny is not completely out of my reach. He’s 19 points in front of me. … So I think I’ve got a shot at legitimately racing him on points, but probably the others don’t. With respect to that, I think Kevin’s a pretty good ways away from everybody.”

Keselowski views this round — which features races at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville — as less of a wildcard than the previous round, which included Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

“In some ways, it’s less stressful because you feel like you can control more of your own destiny,” he said of this round. “You can never control all of it, but more of it. That said, there are some really good teams, really good performers. The other side I guess if you’re playing devil’s advocate … ‘Hey, I’m really going to have to step up and deliver in this round because nothing by chance is going to work in my favor.’ So the rounds certainly have different feels to them.”

3. Looking ahead

As Clint Bowyer closes in on his 15th and final full-time Cup season before he moves to the Fox booth in 2021 with Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, he was asked if he would consider running a Cup race in the future.

“I’m definitely open for anything,” Bowyer said. “Hey, you can’t just shut off being a race car driver. Are there tracks that I wish I never see again? Yes, but I’m probably gonna see them anyway. I’m gonna be there calling the races, but certainly there are some tracks that I’m really, really gonna miss. 

Clint Bowyer has 10 career Cup wins. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“Those road courses, believe it or not, are right up there. The short tracks and things like that, those are tracks that I felt like my talent and my experience that I’ve learned over the years were really good at some of those tracks. 

“I think that if an opportunity comes down the line and somebody was to be out or something like that, I would love to fill in if I could do a good job. I know I could at some of those tracks. So who knows? I think we’re just gonna have to see how it all goes and if an opportunity comes to the table, maybe I’ll take it.”

Provided he doesn’t return to run a race at Kansas, this weekend will be his final race at his home state track. Bowyer is winless in 24 career Cup starts at Kansas. He has three top-five finishes and eight top 10s.

“It’s been a bear for me,” Bowyer said of Kansas. “One of my worst tracks. That sucks so bad. Like, there’s nothing worse. Why can’t the Roval be Kansas Speedway? You know what I mean, or something like that where I’m good — a short track where I’ve had really good success over the years, but, dammit, it’s not over. I’m gonna come there and I’m gonna bust their ass this weekend. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but it’s gonna happen. Write it down.”

4. Higher racing IQ

This is the first time Brandon Jones has reached the Round of 8 in the Xfinity Series and it comes in what has been a breakthrough year.

Jones has scored three of his four career wins this season. He goes into Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) having won the past two Xfinity races at the 1.5-mile track.

Brandon Jones has a career-high three Xfinity wins this season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old Jones, who will return to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021 for his sixth full-time season in the series, says his experience has helped him advance in these playoffs.

“There’s never one time you come to the track and don’t think you’re going to win, but I also feel you’ve got to have a certain amount of knowledge to win the races and to do good and continue to put yourself in position to go to the next race, the next round with a good cushion,” he said.

“In the past, I just don’t think that I had that, I guess you could say that racing IQ … of how to continue to keep getting to the next round and how to put yourself in the position to run really good every single race and get those points. All that stuff adds up to this point.

“I feel that with the years I’ve been in Xfinity, every year learning how to take better notes, how to do that stuff. That is definitely going to help me throughout these next couple of races. I don’t feel any added pressure. I feel more of a relief that I’ve proven to myself that I’m able to do this. I’m able to compete for wins.”

Jones enters this round sixth in the standings. He is five points behind Noah Gragson, who holds what would be the final transfer position to the championship race.

Chase Briscoe, who has a series-high eight wins, leads the standings. He has a 37-point lead on Justin Haley, the first driver outside a transfer spot. Jones is three points behind Haley.

5. Truck debut

Hailie Deegan makes her Truck Series debut Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Hailie Deegan
Hailie Deegan ranks third in the ARCA points heading into Friday night’s season finale at Kansas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The 19-year-old, who started in Toyota’s driver development program but moved to Ford before this season, has run the full ARCA season this year. She is viewed as someone who could help transform NASCAR if she has success on the track.

The goal Saturday will be less lofty. Run all the laps and make it to the finish.

The best finish by a female in their Truck Series debut is 17th by Johanna Long in July 2010 at what is now Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis. Next is Chrissy Wallace and Shawna Robinson, who both finished 18th in their debuts. Wallace’s debut came in March 2008 at Martinsville. Robinson’s first series start was June 2003 at Texas. The only other female to finish in the top 20 in her Truck debut was Gabi DiCarlo. She placed 19h at Auto Club Speedway in February 2009.

The best finish by a female driver in a Truck race is fifth by Natalie Decker at Daytona this year. Health problems have kept Decker out of recent races, but she is expected to race again next week at Texas Motor Speedway.

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