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 suspends Chase Elliott one race for incident with Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one Cup race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600, the sanctioning body announced Tuesday.

“We take this very seriously,” Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition, said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The incident that happened off Turn 4, again after looking at all the available resources — in-car camera, data, SMT, which basically gives us (a car’s) steering, throttle, gives us braking — it was an intentional act by Chase in our opinion.”

Hendrick Motorsports stated that it would not appeal the penalty. Corey LaJoie will drive the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway. Carson Hocevar will drive LaJoie’s car this weekend.

Hendrick Motorsports also stated that it would submit a waiver request for Elliott to remain eligible for the playoffs. Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “I don’t see any reason at this point in time why wouldn’t (grant the waiver) when that request comes across our desk.”

This weekend will mark the seventh race in the first 15 that Elliott will have missed. He missed six races after breaking his leg in a snowboarding accident in early March. Elliott, who is winless this season, is 29th in points.

Elliott and Hamlin got together shortly before the halfway mark in Monday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

As they ran together, Hamlin forced Elliott toward the wall. Elliott’s car slapped the wall. Elliott then made contact with the right rear of Hamlin’s car, sending Hamlin into the wall.

“I got right-rear hooked in the middle of the straightway,” Hamlin said after the incident. “Yes, it was a tantrum. He shouldn’t be racing next week. Right-rear hooks are absolutely unacceptable. He shouldn’t be racing.”

Said Sawyer on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “In the heat of the battle, things happen, but they have to learn to react in a different way. … Our drivers need to understand that you have to handle that in a completely different way than hooking someone in the right rear and putting them in harm’s way, not only with just a major head-on collision like Denny had, but also other competitors.”

Sawyer also said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “nothing gave us the indication that on that particular contact with the fourth-turn wall … that anything was broke” on Elliott’s car and could have caused him to come down and hit Hamlin’s car in the right rear.

NASCAR also announced that Scott Brzozowski and Adam Lewis, crew members on Michael McDowell‘s team, had each been suspended two races after McDowell’s car lost a tire in Monday’s race.

Winners and losers at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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A look at winners and losers from Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Ryan Blaney — Blaney stopped his winless streak at 59 races and gave team owner Roger Penske his second major race victory in two days. Blaney had the best car but had to fight through restarts late in the race to win.

William Byron — Byron, the winningest driver this season, barely missed getting victory No. 4. He finished second and scored his fifth straight top 10.

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex logged his third top five of the season.

23XI RacingBubba Wallace was fourth and Tyler Reddick fifth, giving 23XI Racing a pair of top-five finishes for the first time in a points race.

LOSERS

Jimmie Johnson — The seven-time champion admitted having problems adjusting to the Next Gen car on a 1.5-mile track. He crashed early and finished last.

Legacy Motor Club — It was a bad night for Jimmie Johnson and his team’s drivers. Johnson finished last in the 37-car field. Noah Gragson was 36th. Erik Jones placed 32nd.

Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin — Two drivers who had strong cars didn’t make it to the finish after crashing near the halfway point. Hamlin said Elliott “shouldn’t be racing next week. Right-rear hooks are absolutely unacceptable. He shouldn’t be racing.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series results: Justin Allgaier wins at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Justin Allgaier finally broke through for his first win of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season Monday night.

Allgaier stretched his last fuel load over the final laps to finish in front of John Hunter Nemechek. Cole Custer was third, Austin Hill fourth and Ty Gibbs fifth. Gibbs ran both races Monday, completing 900 miles.

The win also was the first of the season for JR Motorsports.

Charlotte Xfinity results

Xfinity points after Charlotte

Justin Allgaier wins NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, N.C. — Justin Allgaier won a fuel-mileage gamble to win Monday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Allgaier stretched his fuel to outlast second-place John Hunter Nemechek. Following in the top five were Cole Custer, Austin Hill and Ty Gibbs.

The victory was Allgaier’s first of the year and the first of the season for JR Motorsports. He has 20 career wins.

MORE: Charlotte Xfinity results

After a long day at CMS, the race ended at 11:25 p.m. The race started Monday morning but was stopped twice because of weather before it was halted with 48 of 200 laps completed so that the Coca-Cola 600 Cup Series race could be run.

When the race was stopped, Gibbs, Nemechek and Allgaier were in the top three positions.

Gibbs won the first two stages.

Stage 1 winner: Ty Gibbs

Stage 2 winner: Ty Gibbs

Who had a good race: Justin Allgaier has had good cars in previous races but finally cashed in with a win Monday. He led 83 laps. … John Hunter Nemechek, in second, scored his fifth top-two run of the season. … Cole Custer scored his sixth straight top-10 finish. … Ty Gibbs lasted 900 miles for the day and led 52 laps in the Xfinity race.

Who had a bad race: Sam Mayer was running 10th when he spun off Turn 2. He finished 35th. … Sheldon Creed finished three laps down in 28th.

Next: The series moves on to Portland International Raceway in Oregon for a 4:30 p.m. ET race June 3.