Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing: A long, sometimes rough, road

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Of the 16 drivers racing Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn spots in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, one is likely to draw the most attention.

Kyle Busch. And for multiple reasons.

Saturday night’s 500-lap marathon will be Busch’s first Cup race since the Tuesday morning announcement that he will depart Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to drive in 2023 for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch enters Saturday’s race in a bit of trouble. He is 13th in the 16-driver standings, two points below the cut line. He needs either a win Saturday or a move on the positive side of the cut line to continue pursuit of a third Cup championship in the Round of 12.

A failure to qualify for the playoff’s second round would mark the first time Busch has been eliminated in the opening round, and it would be a major black mark on what will be his final season with JGR and a rather ignominious result for a driver of his caliber.

A collapse in the playoffs would not be the darkest of times for Busch during his 15-year JGR tenure, however. The partnership between one of the sport’s most volatile drivers and the former Super Bowl-winning football coach has been one of amazing highs — dozens of victories and two Cup championships — and embarrassing lows.

That their long ride together has come to an end is a low in itself. Busch figured to close his career in the warm embrace of Toyota and Gibbs; instead, he is moving to a Chevrolet team that has promise but isn’t considered at the sport’s top level.

Instead of breezing into retirement somewhere in his 40s and possibly opening the door for major-series competition for his son, Brexton, Busch faces a bit of rebuilding at RCR, which has two drivers — Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick — in his year’s Cup playoffs but has scored only four wins since 2019 and no Cup championships since 1994.

Busch will arrive at the doorstep of the Childress shop with a history of altercations, including, ironically, a significant one with his new boss. Aggravated at how Busch was racing his Truck Series drivers in 2011, Childress punched Busch several times at Kansas Speedway in 2011, absorbing a $150,000 fine from NASCAR. That incident, quite serious at the moment, was played for laughs at Tuesday’s press conference as Childress presented Busch with a watch, a reference to Childress asking someone to “Hold my watch” before engaging in fisticuffs with Busch 11 years ago.

Even if he misses a crack at another title, however, Busch’s time with the Gibbs team is one of the most remarkable driver-owner success stories in stock car racing history.

He has scored 56 of JGR’s 198 Cup victories and won his two titles (2015 and 2019) in Gibbs cars. Since Busch joined JGR in 2008, his 56 wins top the overall winners list, with Jimmie Johnson (50) and Kevin Harvick (49) next. It is not stretching matters too far to imagine that Busch’s Cup win total with JGR could have been doubled. He has finished second 51 times for the team.

Busch has led a staggering 17,335 laps in JGR Cup cars.

In addition, Busch practically owned the Xfinity Series for a time, winning 90 times in JGR entries and finishing second 40 times.

Pockmarked in that run of success are Busch’s battles with other drivers, crew members, his own crew chiefs, media members and a significant collection of fans. Although Busch has a big fan support group that he has labeled Rowdy Nation, many fans delight in his failures, give him thumbs-down (and other fingers) at driver introductions and even boo his team hauler as it rolls by.

There is not a lot of middle ground in the Kyle Busch landscape.

In 2008 at Richmond Raceway, Busch, newly arrived at JGR after leaving Hendrick Motorsports, which replaced him with Dale Earnhardt Jr., made what Junior’s extensive fan base considered a major no-no. Fighting for position, the two cars crashed, sending Earnhardt Jr. hard into the wall.

That sparked a feud that fans of the two drivers were only too happy to pour fuel on. Earnhardt returned the favor in the next race at Richmond, spinning Busch.

Earlier that year, at Atlanta, Busch had scored a historic win, putting Toyota in a Cup victory lane for the first time.

Across the years, Busch’s ride would include more ups and downs:

  • In 2009, he and Tony Stewart tangled at Daytona.
  • At Bristol in 2010, he logged a remarkable achievement, winning the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races there on the same weekend.
  • In 2011, he crashed into Ron Hornaday’s truck at Texas Motor Speedway and was suspended for the rest of that weekend’s racing at the track. At Darlington that season, Busch and Kevin Harvick had an on-track disagreement. Harvick parked beside Busch on pit road and tried to hit him through the driver-side window. Busch moved away in his car, and Harvick’s car, minus its driver, rolled into the pit wall.
  • In 2015, Busch ultimately would win his first Cup title, but the year started under a big cloud when he crashed hard in the February Xfinity race at Daytona, breaking his leg and missing three months of racing.
  • In 2017, Busch, angered by Joey Logano‘s aggressive racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, made a beeline for Logano’s pit after the race and threw a punch at him. A collection of crew members became involved in the scuffle.
  • Busch won his second Cup championship in 2019 and now is the only active driver with more than one title.

Saturday night he continues along the road toward another. And toward the end of the biggest part of his racing journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

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The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.