Friday 5: Kyle Busch backs words with action

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Those weren’t idle words Kyle Busch spoke heatedly after his crash at Darlington in the opening race of the Cup playoffs.

Frustrated with his car’s performance that night, Busch told NBC Sports: “I don’t know what our problem is, but every time I go to the (simulator) … and think we had a good sim session, we go to the racetrack and we suck. So, I’m done with that.”

Busch stayed true to his word this week.

“We had originally planned a Vegas (simulator) session, but I threw that out the window after Darlington,” he said of preparations for Sunday’s playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We’re just going to go off our notes from earlier this year, how we ran out there.

“We actually did simulate for Vegas (for the March race), and when we showed up, we were way off. We had to work on the car all race long. Finally, the third stage, we were pretty decent. We were able to drive our way back up to the front and finish third.”

Those notes will help but a key difference is that the temperature was in the mid-70s for the March race. The temperature for this weekend’s race is expected to be in the lower 90s. Such a change between those races can impact a car’s handling.

With practice not held at nine of the 10 playoff races – the Phoenix championship weekend is the exception – teams rely on simulators and other computer programs to set the car for each event. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota each has a simulator for their teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.

Canceling a simulator session isn’t necessarily a disadvantage for Busch, the two-time series champion. He has been frustrated for more than a year with how information from the simulator does not always correlate to on-track success.

“I don’t think it works worse for me,” Busch said of the simulator. “It’s different for everybody. Even our (Kyle Busch Motorsports) Truck guys have found frustrations in the sim and it all relates to where the rubber meets the road. It’s all about the tire model and whatever tire model you put into the sim is kind of the characteristics of what your vehicle will drive like.

“Every driver has their own interpretation as to what they feel like they’re feeling and the exact feel that they get from their butt to the chassis. It’s hard to do.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180
Kyle Busch finished 35th at Darlington, ninth at Richmond and 21st at Bristol in the opening round of the Cup playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Sunday’s race at Las Vegas (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is viewed by many in the garage as critical in the Round of 12. The race is viewed as more predictable than the other two events in the round: Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. A good race at Las Vegas can help overcome a poor result due to a crash at Talladega or the Roval.

“You can be riding along and all of a sudden, a 12-car pileup happens right on top of yourself at Talladega,” Busch said. “You can be running fourth or fifth and get run into at the Roval and get spun off and sent off course and now you’re outside the top 20.”

Busch enters this round fifth in the standings, nine points above the cutline. That doesn’t give him much margin for error.

What’s clear is Busch isn’t as fast as the top cars. He’s led 3.1% of the 1,817 laps run in the last seven races. Busch has led 286 laps this season. His record low for a season is 362 laps led in his rookie campaign in 2005.

“Unfortunately, we just started too far off at Darlington,” Busch said of the playoffs. “We didn’t have a chance to get to where we wanted to get. We were probably going to run eighth or ninth that race.

“Richmond, we came out fine. We got the lead, but we were probably only going to run second or third there (before a pit road speeding penalty). Bristol, I think we were going to run fourth or fifth (before a cut tire). We’re not where we need to be. I keep saying that.

“We’re not the Kyle Busch of old where we’re leading tons of laps like (Kyle) Larson and running up front and battling for leads and stage wins and all that stuff. Trying to get that message across in a nice manner that we still have some work to do in order to better ourselves to get further up.”

As Busch and his team try to resolve those issues, they have to be careful about overcompensating in other areas.

“You can’t overpush things on restarts and get yourself in a bad spot,” he said. “I feel like sometimes, tires are an important gain. If you take care of the tires, they’ll reward you on the (end of a run).

“JGR, our cars have always, more times than not, been historically better on long runs. That’s kind of where you just have to be patient and bide your time and wait for that long run to come in.

“The Penske cars, you would argue, are more short-run speed, so those guys will fire off hard and do everything they can on restarts, but they might fade. So you have that time in which the field will cross over. Sometimes, those cautions come out in tough spots for us and it doesn’t quite work out that way. That’s part of the game.”

2. More with less

While much has been made about Joe Gibbs Racing winning two playoff races and Kyle Larson winning at Bristol, Brad Keselowski says not to overlook his team – even though he enters the Round of 12 below the cutline.

“We knocked a few guys out of the first round that, quite frankly, were considerably faster than us, so that bodes well for us,” he said Thursday. “If we can put the speed with all the other pieces we have, we’re a very dangerous team.”

A quick look at Keselowski’s first round shows that he led 10 laps in three races and scored points in three of six stages. Not awe-inspiring. But he and his team avoided mistakes and misfortune. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the round that we had,” he said. “We didn’t win a race. We didn’t contend to win a race in that first round, but we went to Darlington with a 15th-place car and put together a solid top-10 finish (seventh). 

“We went to Richmond with a 15th-to-20th-place car unfortunately, and put together a solid finish, got some stage points out of it and ended up 13th. 

“And we went to Bristol with probably the best car we’ve had, probably a top-five car, and scored the third-most points and finished sixth. 

“In a lot of ways, the media and the fans look at the race winner as the guy that ran the best race. To me, I always look at the field and say, ‘Who did the best with the car they had?’ 

“And I feel like we’re out-finishing our speed right now by a good bit. That’s a combination of certainly the moves I’m making on the racetrack and the moves that we make on pit road and with respect to pit strategy and the pit crew themselves, so I’m really proud of that.”

Brad Keselowski
Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski enters the second round of the Cup playoffs six points below the cutline. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The challenge grows for Keselowski and his team this weekend at Las Vegas. He is six points below the cutline. Keselowski said before the playoffs that “we just haven’t shown the speed” at 550-horsepower package tracks similar to Las Vegas.

While he finished second at Las Vegas in March, he’s had inconsistent results in other races with the package. He has two top-five finishes, a 10th-place finish and two finishes outside the top 10 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. He’s also failed to score stage points in two of those races.

“I really don’t know what I’m gonna have this weekend,” Keselowski said. “If we went there and we ran top five all (race) and snuck out a race win, I wouldn’t be shocked. If we went to Vegas and ran 10th to 15th all (race) and finished in that range, I wouldn’t be shocked.”

3. Looking for a spark

Bubba Wallace’s 16th-place finish last week at Bristol in his first race with crew chief Bootie Barker was an improvement over the previous two races.

That is something 23XI Racing is looking for in these final weeks of the season. Wallace is 22nd in points with seven races left in the season.

Co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team moved the crew chief role from Mike Wheeler, who also is the team’s director of competition, so Wheeler could focus on preparing the organization to run two teams next year. Kurt Busch will be Wallace’s teammate in 2022.

“I just think that we were kind of overwhelming (Wheeler) with everything he kind of needed to do,” Hamlin said. “There were some projects, there’s a long list of projects to get our shop ready …  but I (also) need performance on the 23. How can I ask him to spend more time working on that but yet, ‘Hey, by the way I need you finish this list of stuff as well.’”

With Wheeler focused on next year, Bootie Barker was tapped to be Wallace’s crew chief. Barker was a Cup crew chief from 2003-17. He worked in the shop in various roles before the switch.

“I do think he’s a very calming voice that can work with Bubba,” Hamlin said of Barker. “It seems like (Wallace) has resonated with those old-school type guys in the past.”

As for next year, Hamlin said the team is “looking at all options” for Wallace’s crew chief.

4. Uncertain future

As he enters his first Xfinity Series playoffs Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jeb Burton knows he’s racing for more than a title.

“I’m auditioning for my career,” he said.

The 29-year-old has an uncertain future because sponsor Nutrien Ag Solutions will not return after this season.

This season is Burton’s first full-time effort since he was with an underfunded Cup team in 2015. Since then, he’s run as few as six races in a season in NASCAR’s top three series (2018) and no more than 16 races (2016) in a season.

That’s what made this year so meaningful. After all those part-time efforts, he secured a full-time ride with Kaulig Racing. He won at Talladega for his first Xfinity victory. Burton enters the Xfinity playoffs seeded seventh among 12 drivers, four points above the cutline.

With all that he’s accomplished this season, the recent news that his sponsor was leaving hit hard.

“Man, it’s difficult,” Burton said. “It’s hard on my family. That’s for certain. My mom and dad, it has been an emotional roller coaster the last couple of weeks. I’m trying not to let my emotions get to me now.”

5. A special helmet

It’s become tradition for Justin Allgaier’s daughter Harper to design his helmet for the playoffs.

This year’s design features glitter and flames, including purple, on a black helmet. The 8-year-old also has a special message on the back of the helmet that reads: “I love you daddy! Use every chance you get!”

Justin Allgaier’s helmet, which was designed by his daughter Harper. It includes a special message for him. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

Allgaier said the helmet has additional meaning to him that he doesn’t think his daughter truly knows.

“She knows that I like flames, but I don’t think she really necessarily understands kind of the background of the flames for me,” he told NBC Sports.

“My very first race car, when I was 5 years old, had flames on it. My very first helmet had flames on it. My second firesuit actually had flames on it as well.”

Just as meaningful is her message to him.

“Lately, for whatever reason she’s changed what she tells me pre-race,” said Allgaier, who is seeded third in the Xfinity playoffs. “She tells me to take every chance I can get.

“Its really kind of stuck in my head. To her, it’s just something, it’s a ritual she tells me each and every week before I get into the racecar, but it’s something that has really stuck with me and made me think a lot more about what I’m doing on the racetrack vs. what I’m not doing.”