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.