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.

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).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

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.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

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

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.