‘Good things will happen’: Ben Beshore charting Kyle Busch’s course correction

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Ben Beshore did not take the bait. The opportunity to acknowledge the shortcomings of predecessor Adam Stevens presented itself, but Kyle Busch’s new crew chief opted for the high road.

“I worked for Adam for four years,” Beshore said last month in Daytona. “We had a lot of great success on that team. I’m not going to say anything bad about him, by any means. But from my standpoint, I’m just going to do it my way, I guess.”

Beshore seemed jittery. Perhaps it was the adrenaline — he’d just won the Busch Clash — or maybe it was his first time on the microphone in front of this many people, but the rookie Cup Series team leader was delicately laying out his game plan for course-correcting a conspicuously wayward ship, careful in choosing his words.

Busch, inching towards his statistical prime, won just twice in a 58-race stretch, an aberration in a career that’s seen the 35-year-old racer average one Cup Series win in every 10 starts. It was a wasted 2020 season for a driver who likely costs Joe Gibbs Racing north of $10 million per year, and the organization’s answer was to shuffle its crew chiefs for 2021.

Stevens was moved out of the pressure-cooker that’s the two-time title-winning No. 18 team, onto Christopher Bell’s No. 20 team. Beshore, fresh off of a four-win Xfinity Series season with a driver who had never previously achieved victory at the NASCAR national level, earned the promotion, bestowed leadership of one of the most distinguished teams in recent series history.

His plan to right this massive ship is a back-to-basics approach, one involving a lot of personal touch.

“Try to get the most out of my guys,” he said, when asked about his personal imprint on the storied team. “Try to push the engineers to keep striving, to make faster setups, keep on my guys about detail, detail, detail on our cars and just put good stuff underneath Kyle every week.

“I think good things will happen.”

So bad, so fast

From the outside looking in, the perception of how things got so bad, so fast with the No. 18 team hovers around the lack of practice during the 2020 season. It’s a valid reason: Busch is known for having an impressive recall of successful setups, honed predominately from track time and the kind of A-to-B trials most teams work through during practice sessions.

Relative to others, Busch previously put in little time at the Toyota Racing Development simulator, hesitant to present his driving style for study by other Toyota drivers, but his visits have increased over the last year as a makeweight in lieu of traditional on-track shakedowns no longer available under the COVID-19 protocol.

But more realistically, this was only part of the problem, not the problem itself. The downward spiral began in the second half of 2019, when Busch and Stevens — with plenty of practice time — were losing speed relative to the field as races progressed from green to checkers.

The dynamic was imbalanced: Leading into the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, their car ranked as the second fastest in the series, but the sixth fastest in the playoffs specifically, where he also ranked 11th in speed during the fourth quarters of races. The win at Homestead masked any deficiencies and the need for radical change, impacts felt in 2020 and compounded by a pandemic-sized curveball.

Stevens planted himself further in the weeds when he failed to recognize or replicate the way races were being won in 2020. Whereas Rodney Childers and Chris Gabehart were leaping Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin towards race-winning track position, Stevens’ strategy proved problematic. Busch’s running spot was retained on 54.8% of green-flag pit cycles, nearly 10 percentage points off of the series average, resulting in 95 spots lost on the racetrack. Most of the loss can be attributed to mistimed calls.

Pit strategy is just one way to win races, of course. Alan Gustafson (149 positions lost on behalf of Chase Elliott) and James Small (with a 52.3% retention rate for Martin Truex Jr.) weren’t productive strategists last year; however, their respective teams ranked first and second in speed across the whole of the season, keeping them competitive deep into the playoffs.

Stevens’ car ranked eighth, not ideal when trying to overcome deficits created by poor strategy output. His team was summarily bounced from the playoffs following the race on the Charlotte Roval, a day in which his strategy resulted in a 22-position loss.

The year wasn’t without good moments — Busch and Stevens secured a late-season win in Texas — but too frequently, their good days tended to not matter for the result. Busch earned finishes of sixth or better in the Coca-Cola 600, the summer race in Texas and the playoff race in Las Vegas, all races where he scored high in most statistical categories. In each of them he was defeated, in part due to strategy, by cars ranked slower than him in those events, signifying losses that were tactical, not mechanical.

The way back

In a vacuum, the mild-mannered Beshore might not be a better, more assertive crew chief than Stevens, a two-time series champion. But that’s not what’s being asked of Beshore. He needs to be a better crew chief to Kyle Busch at this point in his career than Stevens. That’s a much different task, and the schedule skewing towards 750-horsepower tracks should make for a comfortable landing in his first season in charge.

In his 2019 championship run-up, Busch was vocal about the difficulty in passing on short tracks with high downforce at 750 horsepower. What came off to the public as whining was more altruistic than it seemed: He led the Cup Series in surplus passing value — the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency and the expected adjusted pass efficiency of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope — on the very tracks featuring a rules package he was criticizing. His passing on the short tracks and 1-mile tracks provided him a sizable advantage, so much so that a change to a low-downforce package risked a quantifiable strength.

Instead of shutting up, he put up: In 2020, with a tweaked rules package on 750-horsepower tracks, he topped all drivers in surplus passing value (+5.64%, leading to a pass differential 87 positions better than his statistical expectation). The closest he came to winning on these tracks was a second-place run at Bristol, in which he led a race-high 159 laps. With 750-horsepower tracks now making up 56% of the schedule including the championship race, it appears the 36-race slate suits his biggest driving strengths while also mitigating some of the strategy element that thwarted the No. 18 team last season.

It’s a reason why Beshore’s goal for Year 1 doesn’t seem so lofty.

“For me, it’s getting to Phoenix in the final four,” Beshore said, when asked of his expectations. “You’re not going to get there without winning races, so we’re going to have to win enough races. We’re going to have to run up front. We’re going to have to build stage points and have a very successful year to carry us through to the playoffs.”

Playoff points, a product of regular-season stage victories, were sparse in 2020. Busch secured his first of two stage victories last year in Kansas, the 19th race of the season. His other stage victory, in the playoff race at Texas, came after he was eliminated from championship contention.

“And then (we want to) really start ramping it up once playoff time starts and be a factor there for the championship,” Beshore continued.

A championship, or at the very least a legitimate contention, would represent a return to the normal expectation for Busch, in rare air given his propensity for winning Cup Series races from a relatively young age.

If 39 represents the age of peak statistical powers for modern-day NASCAR drivers, he’s in the middle of a three-year crescendo likely culminating in a form more dominant than we’ve seen from him. It’s a scary proposition for competing teams, one Beshore can be an integral part of if he hits the ground running this season.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images
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Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime

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Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Truck race results at WWT Raceway: Grant Enfinger wins

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Grant Enfinger took the lead when the leaders wrecked in the final laps and held off the field in overtime to win Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It is Enfinger’s second win in the last five races. He also collected a $50,000 bonus for winning the Triple Truck Challenge.

MORE: Truck race results

MORE: Driver points after WWT Raceway

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar and Chase Purdy.

Ty Majeski and Zane Smith wrecked while racing for the lead with six laps to go. Majeski, running on the inside of Smith, slid up the track and clipped Smith’s truck. Both hit the wall. That put Enfinger in the lead.

Smith finished 20th. Majeski placed 30th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Stewart Friesen

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Grant Enfinger’s victory is his fourth top 10 in the last five races. … Carson Hocevar’s fourth-place finish is his fourth consecutive top-five result. … Stewart Friesen’s third-place finish moved him into a playoff spot with four races left in the regular season. … Matt DiBenedetto‘s sixth-place finish is his third consecutive top 10. … Jesse Love finished ninth in his series debut.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ty Majeski had a chance to take the points lead with series leader Corey Heim out because of illness, but Majeski’s 30th-place finish after running at the front most of the day, leaves him behind Heim. … Hailie Deegan finished 32nd after contact sent her truck into the wall hard. … After finishing a career-high third last week at Charlotte, Dean Thompson placed 34th Saturday due to an engine issue.

NEXT: The series races June 23 at Nashville Superspeedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1)

Xfinity starting lineup at Portland: Sheldon Creed wins pole

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Sheldon Creed scored his first career Xfinity Series pole by taking the top spot for Saturday’s race at Portland International Raceway.

Creed, making his 50th career series start, earned the pole with a lap of 95.694 mph on the 1.97-mile road course.

MORE: Portland Xfinity starting lineup

Cole Custer will start second with a lap of 95.398 mph. He is followed by Josh Berry (94.242 mph), John Hunter Nemechek (95.127) and Charlotte winner Justin Allgaier (94.897). Road racing specialist Jordan Taylor, driving for Kaulig Racing, qualified sixth at 94.772 mph.

The green flag is scheduled to wave 4:46 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.