‘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.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).