Analysis: 550-horsepower tracks the foundation of Kyle Busch rebuild

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Kyle Busch has won just four times in his last 91 NASCAR Cup Series starts. For a driver thrust into parleys over whether his career-long win total would ever catch or surpass David Pearson’s 105 as recently as two Februarys ago, the sudden infrequency of victories is still a bit jarring.

A vocal critic of the tapered-spacer era, though perhaps the user most knowledgable of its inner-workings, Busch hit a depth previously unforeseen for him last year when he failed to win any of the first 33 races. He was eliminated from the playoffs following the Round of 12 and longtime crew chief Adam Stevens, with whom Busch won his two Cup Series championships, was removed from his pit box.

To replace Stevens, Ben Beshore was promoted from the Xfinity Series to Busch’s No. 18 team and expectations were high. Given the opinion, Beshore might’ve missed meeting the expectation of carrying this team back to the promised land of legitimate title contention. But the new crew chief’s imprint is, if anything, different from what we’ve seen in the recent past and compared to other Joe Gibbs Racing programs.

In a twist of irony and contrary to where the majority of JGR’s strengths lay, it’s the tracks utilizing the 550-horsepower package with a laptop-sized spoiler creating higher downforce where Busch has been most competitive. Each of his four wins dating back to June 2019 used this rules package, including two this season. In effect, it’s been these tracks where Beshore, building a team around Busch from the ground up, believes he’s been best able to make gains.

“We’ve had a steady progression — the 550 tracks seem to be our strength,” Beshore said. “We haven’t had race-winning speed at the 550s but we’ve had top-five speed. We’re just missing that little bit to honestly be able to run with the Hendrick (Motorsports) cars.”

Beshore’s evaluation is correct. He’s fashioned his team into a unit with good and sustainable speed, especially on 550-horsepower tracks where they rank third in average median lap time. Since the Pocono race weekend in June, their five-race rolling speed ranking has hovered above 7.0, failing only twice to turn a median lap ranked sixth or higher. Inconveniently, those instances came in playoff races, at Darlington (ranked 11th) and Bristol (ranked eighth), both 750-horsepower tracks.

But progression is progression, and that’s clearly happening in Year 1 of the Busch-Beshore partnership. The No. 18 Toyota Camry ranked as the eighth-fastest car in the Cup Series last year, Busch’s slowest machine when compared to his five prior seasons. It ranks fifth to this point in 2021.

“I think we’re getting there,” Beshore said. “We’ve got some work to do on the 750-type stuff and the road courses. But we’re close. We just need that extra percentage to be able to compete for wins.”

Beshore speaks as someone who’s forgotten his victories already; with additional context, his modesty is more easily understood. Pocono was the result of a hard-fought comeback from a transmission failure for a win engineered by a fuel mileage gambit. Busch’s win in the spring in Kansas was the product of late restart theatrics and the driver’s veteran savvy.

Busch is objectively good with a rules package he detests. Among all full-time drivers, he ranks first in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on 550-horsepower tracks and third in surplus passing value. He’s also a steady enough restarter, defending his positions within the top 14 at a 60.5% clip, to avoid traps set by the two-lap windows following each volatile restart on 1.5-mile tracks.

Among JGR’s four drivers at 550-horsepower facilities, there’s not a more efficient passer on long runs or a better position defender on restarts. In this sense, he’s the company’s outlier; all advanced metrics regarding Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell skew towards 750-horsepower ovals and road courses.

Busch hasn’t once had the fastest car this year on his best style of track, but he’s corralled two wins anyway. This is a brand of overachieving that bridges the gap on that needed “extra percentage” as noted by Beshore, who acknowledges the driver is making up the difference.

“On these 550s, we’ve sort of hit on a package that Kyle seems to like and is comfortable with,” Beshore said. “We can at least go out there and compete.

“I think we’re just doing a better job as a team figuring out what Kyle needs. It’s the ever-progression of this sport. It moves fast. The setups, everything progresses fast. Even though we’re in a lame-duck season with this car, guys are still working hard and making gains.”

Where Busch currently stands in the Cup Series hierarchy probably doesn’t represent a return to normalcy for a driver who’s averaged one win for every 10 starts in his career. But gone is the sense of panic and confusion that was a common thread during the second half of 2019 and for all of 2020. That was the breakdown; this is the rebuild.

Whether Busch slots into his sixth Championship 4 appearance in seven years could directly come from this weekend’s result in Kansas, the final 550-horsepower race of the season, where he’s the track’s reigning winner but not a distinguished betting favorite.

Regardless, this has been a year in which a habitual winner reclaimed an identity after a rudderless spell, proof that there’s an elite driver within a team still working to catch up to his immense ability.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.