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.