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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Winners and losers at WWT Raceway


Winners and losers from Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:


Kyle BuschWins the pole, leads the most laps and holds the field off over the last five restarts to win the race. He scored six playoff points, giving him 16 on the season, second only to William Byron’s 17. Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season for Richard Childress Racing. Busch’s three wins this year equals what JGR has done so far.

Ryan BlaneyHis sixth-place finish moved him into the points lead. He last led the points after the spring 2022 Richmond race. Blaney also won a stage Sunday to collect another playoff point. He has seven this season.

Kyle LarsonFourth-place finish was a big turnaround after struggles earlier in the race. It has not been easy for this team the last few weeks. He has three top-five finishes and four finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races.

Daniel SuarezHis seventh-place finish moved him up two spots to 16th in the standings, the final playoff transfer spot at this time.


Ross ChastainHe finished 22nd for his third consecutive result outside the top 20. He entered the weekend leading the points and fell to fifth afterward. He is 29 points behind new series leader Ryan Blaney with 11 races left in the regular season.

Tyler ReddickRebounded from an early spin to lead but had his race end after a brake rotor failed. He was one of four drivers eliminated by brake rotor failures. The others were Carson Hocevar, Bubba Wallace and Noah Gragson.

What drivers said at WWT Raceway


Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

Kyle Busch — Winner: “Just the restarts kind of went our way. We were able to get through on the outside on that one and push (Kyle) Larson out, then he took bottom of (Turns) 3 and 4, I was able to carry the momentum around the high side to take the lead. That was really important. I think that was kind of the key moment of us being able to win today. Being able to control the rest of the restarts for the rest of the race. Kyle is one of the best. It’s good to be able to sit up here and race hard with him, being a Team Chevy partner. He gave me great respect, I appreciate that. That will be given back down the road.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I thought we were super dialed if it was 95 degrees like it was supposed to be with those delays – it kind of took away from the advantage I thought that we had. I’m proud of this whole Sport Clips Toyota team – pit crew did a phenomenal job keeping us in it and doing really good on the money stop with about 60 to go. We are going to have to wait another to get that 50th (win).”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I’m proud of the fight. We were mediocre – just outside the top five all day long. There was a group of cars that were a tick better than us. Then we executed at the end and beat a few of them. We tried some new things from last year, and we learned some lessons. But overall: Good. We needed a solid run. We’ve been going through hell here lately. So, it’s nice to get a top five, third place, and some points there in each stage. Good day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 4th: “Proud of the effort today. It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that. …  I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts, and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “Started off the race near the front and stayed there through Stage 1 and thought we could get a little bit better and maybe have a shot at the couple, three in front of us. We had a pit road penalty and had to go to the back, and it was just an uphill climb from there. Just really tough to get through the field. We got some damage from when someone’s brake rotor exploded, that slowed us down even more. Really with all we went through today, a top-five is a really good day for us. I’m proud of the effort.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 6th: “We ran pretty good today. Won the second stage which was good, second in the first stage. Just kind of lost track position, lost the lead. Through a couple stops and restarts, we could just never really get it back. I thought that (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) and I were similar. It was just a matter of who was out front. I just got a bad restart at the end and fell to sixth. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good points day too, and we’ll keep going.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 7th: “The entire weekend was very solid for us. We barely missed the second run in qualifying and really, we missed it because of me and not because of the car. The car was capable of advancing. In the race, the car was strong right away. It was fun today and we really needed this as a team. We needed a result that we deserved, and I felt like lately it’s been a little difficult on us when it comes to that. Today, I felt like we deserved a top-10 or top-five and we came home seventh, so we will take it.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 9th: “We kind of learned last year that track position is super important. Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, went all the way to the back and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there. So, we had to go for it again, put two on and just left two on. We never took four again. There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great FR8 Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could kind of hold our ground. Those last few cautions kind of hurt us a bit, but still came away with a Top-10. So, it was a good day.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “That was a long day – long race. There were a lot of cautions and red flags. It really started yesterday. I was in a little bit of a hole after qualifying, and I just didn’t do a good job. I had to dig out of that today. We had pretty good speed in our Fastenal Ford Mustang. I was pretty happy with it, and at times, had to move around the track quite a bit. I figured out Gateway really quickly. Not being able to run here last year, I felt a little behind getting going. Definitely found something there at the end. Honestly wish it was a 600-mile race because I felt like we could have kept getting better.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 13th: “Definitely frustrating having a speeding penalty … I’m a little frustrated with myself with that. You think something at the end of Stage 1 isn’t going to affect your race, but it just put us behind. We tried a bunch of strategy calls to get our Freightliner Ford Mustang up there. Had some good restarts at the end and made the most of it, I feel like. Those restarts got really scrappy. Proud of the team effort, proud of the recovery. Definitely a lot to clean up on my end to maximize what I thought was a Top-10 race car.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 14th: “We had an up-and-down day today fighting the balance in our No. 16 Chevy. I felt like we had a top-15 car most of the day, but we had to play defense to stay there. I wasn’t able to roll speed through the corner like I needed to be more aggressive and keep moving forward. We made a strategy call to take two tires, which didn’t work in our favor. Then we got caught up on pit road and restarted pretty far back at the beginning of the third stage. We’ll take a 14th- place finish after everything we battled with our car today and move forward to Sonoma.”

Justin Haley — Finished 16th: It was an up-and-down day for this No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection team. We fired off tight in traffic, and it was just hard to pass. My crew chief, Trent Owens, made some really good strategy calls and we had positive adjustments all day, despite a couple pit-road mishaps. We had another good Chevrolet hot rod, and we will take a 16th-place finish after a hard fought day.

Ryan Preece — Finished 17th: “That was a really long day. I fought a tight race car all day long and every time we came down pit road, my guys made really strong adjustments. It just wasn’t enough to get us to the front and stay there. There were so many cautions there at the end, I was just trying to save the car. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible day for us after qualifying 29th. The fans were out in full force today, too, that was awesome to see. We’ve just got to keep grinding for better finishes.”

Erik Jones — Finished 18th: “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 19th: “We battled handing issues all day and just couldn’t find it. We were loose to start the day and it felt like our car was tight on aero and loose mechanically. Our long-run speed was really all we had today and we could pass cars late in the run, but we had so many cautions in the final stage we didn’t have the chance to run those cars down. Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) put me on offense on the last 20 laps with fresh tires and I thought we could’ve driven up to 15th, but someone missed a shift on the last restart and stacked us up and put us behind. Just one of those days. We had to battle to get all we could get.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 32nd: “We kept our track position just like we wanted to. We got stage points, and I felt like we had a top-eight or so car, which was a big difference from last year. Obviously we’re striving to be better everywhere. We had a really good streak going of really good runs. It looked like the No. 2 (Austin Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out, so that’s a bummer. We definitely had a top-10 car today.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 34th: “Our day kind of went bad early on, but our McDonald’s Camry was able to get through traffic pretty well, but as the track stated to cool off, it just started going away from us. It was starting to get frustrating out there for sure, to have a car that good, and it felt like it was just going away. I had a bad feeling that was coming soon. I was just getting ready to have to back off with how soft the brakes got, but I obviously should have been thinking about that a lap or two sooner.”

Carson Hocevar — Finished 36th: “I thought it was great. I had a blast. Just so thankful for the opportunity. I don’t have a job for next year. I know Al Niece and Cody Efaw wants me to run for them and I will forever run a race or however many. But man, I’m just so thankful that they gave me the opportunity – the opportunity to drive a Xfinity car and now driving a Cup car. I was running 16th.. just so surreal for the first time ever. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot for Schluter Systems, Celsius, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sparks and the No. 7 Chevy team. Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”

Cup results at WWT Raceway, driver points


Kyle Busch scored his third Cup victory of the season, winning Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime.

Busch is tied with William Byron for most victories this season. Busch and Byron have combined to win three of the last six Cup points races (two by Busch and one by Byron).

MORE: Cup race results at WWT Raceway

MORE: Cup driver standings after WWT Raceway

Denny Hamlin finished second. Joey Logano placed third. Kyle Larson overcame struggles early in the race to finish fourth. Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney placed sixth and took the points lead from Ross Chastain, who placed 22nd. Chastain fell to fifth in the standings.

Kyle Busch wins Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime


Kyle Busch scored his third victory of the season Sunday, holding off the field on five restarts in the final 45 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Busch’s previous two wins this season were at Fontana and Talladega. Sunday’s win is the 63rd of his Cup career. He started on the pole and led 121 of 243 laps — including the last 60 — in a race extended three laps by overtime.

MORE: Race results, driver points 

MORE: What drivers had to say

“That was pretty awesome,” Busch said to FS1. “Man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today was pretty phenomenal for us.”

Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

Sunday’s race featured an event-record 11 cautions. Failures with brake rotors led to crashes by Carson Hocevar, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Bubba Wallace.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Denny Hamlin’s runner-up finish is his fourth top-five result of the year. All have come in the last seven races. … Joey Logano’s third-place finish was his first top-five result since Martinsville in April. … Ryan Blaney finished sixth for his sixth top 10 in the last seven races and took the points lead from Ross Chastain. … Michael McDowell‘s ninth-place finish is his second top 10 of the year.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brad Keselowski, making his 500th career Cup start, had mechanical issues early that left his car underpowered for most of the event. He finished 28th. … Carson Hocevar, making his Cup debut, was running 16th when a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing last. … Tyler Reddick spun early in race. After getting back toward the front, a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing 35th.

NOTABLE: This is the 11th time in Kyle Busch’s Cup career that he has had at least three wins in a season.

NEXT: The series races June 11 at Sonoma Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox)