Dr. Diandra: How much does Talladega shake up the playoffs?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for shaking up the playoffs. But how well deserved is that reputation?

Playoff drivers usually view the first race in the second round of the playoffs as the best chance to earn points, earn stage points and maybe even a win given that Talladega is the second race. Now that Texas is in the rear-view mirror, let’s turn our data analysis tools to Talladega.

The shake-up index

Determining how much one race shuffles the playoffs standings requires a simple metric that is applicable to all the years NASCAR has had stages and playoffs. In a rare point of consistency, Talladega has remained the 31st race of the season since 2017, when stage racing started.

After trying a couple different approaches, I finally settled on playoff rankings. These rankings are a zero-sum game. For each driver who moves up a position, another driver must move down.

The first graph is playoff ranking as a function of race for the second playoff segment of 2021. It’s a bit of a mess, but stay with me.

A scatter graph of rank changes to help determine how much shaking-up Talladega actually does

Playoff rank runs along the left side of the graph. The highest ranked driver is at the top and the 12th ranked at the bottom.

The leftmost set of dots shows the rankings coming out of Bristol, after eliminating the lowest four drivers and re-seeding the rest. The second column of dots show the rankings after Las Vegas, which was the first race in the second round in 2021.

Each driver is represented in a different color, with lines connecting his rankings. For example, the dark purple lines show Denny Hamlin rising from third to first over these three races. The light blue lines at the bottom show Alex Bowman plummeting from seventh to 12th.

The messier the lines between two races, the more the playoffs were shaken up. Because it’s hard to quantify “messiness,” I counted each time one driver’s line crossed another driver’s line.

Each crossing indicates two drivers changed places in the rankings. The number of intersections between Bristol and Las Vegas, for example, tells you how much Las Vegas shook up the standings.

Three intersecting lines count as three shake-ups because there are three pairs of drivers crossing.

In 2021, Las Vegas had nine intersections, Talladega 13 and the Roval only five. This seems consistent with our hypothesis that Talladega is the biggest shaker-upper in the second round.

Talladega Timeline

In addition to being only one point, the 2021 Talladega contest poses another problem. Bubba Wallace won the rain-shortened race, which went 311 miles instead of the scheduled 500 miles.

That raises the possibility that 2021 might not be the most representative year for Talladega races. I therefore repeated the analysis going back to 2017. Since we didn’t have stage racing — and thus stage points — before 2017, it doesn’t make sense to compare previous years.

The table below shows the shake-up index from 2017-2021. Note that the first and third races changed from year to year.

A table summarizing the shake-up index for Talladega and other races in the second playoff round from 2017-2021

This five years of data show that Talladega wasn’t always the race that most shook-up this round of playoffs. From 2017-19, Dover and Charlotte held that honor. That’s surprising, especially in 2017. That’s the year 26 of 40 cars failed to finish the Talladega race and NASCAR parked Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto.

In 2020, the three races had just about equal shake-up indices.

The Roval has been the third playoff race for only two years. It was equally chaotic with Talladega in terms of affecting the standings in 2020, but less so in 2021. Kansas beat the Roval for switching up the playoff standings twice.

 A caveat for the first race

If you’re surprised to see a larger shake-up for the first race in the second round of the playoffs, you’re not alone.

The 2021 fall Las Vegas race was remarkably uneventful. There were only two DNFs, both non-playoff cars. And one single-car accident that, again, didn’t involve a playoff car. Yet it had a shake-up index of nine.

It turns out that this is a side-effect of the re-seeding protocol.

The graph below shows the same time period as the rankings graph, but reports total points for the top-12 drivers.

A scatter plot showing how points changed for the top-12 playoff drivers in 2021 in the second round of the playoffs

Immediately after re-seeding, the drivers are separated by 57 points from first to 12th. If you omit Kyle Larson’s 30-point lead, the bottom 11 drivers are separated by only 27 points.

Since a driver can earn a maximum of 60 points in a single race, the first race in a round has a lot more impact in changing the standings. In effect, the first race decompresses the re-seeding compression.

After Las Vegas, the 12 playoff drivers were separated by 78 points. After Talladega, the margin grew to 98 points.

The larger numbers for the first races in any round are more due to the re-seeding-induced points compression than to the nature of the track.

Applied to 2022

Drivers don’t have to win at Talladega. They just have to finish ahead of the other playoff drivers. In fact, if a given driver can’t win, the next best case for him is if none of the other playoff drivers win, either.

The largest drop in positions a driver has seen from Talladega is five — and that’s from the rain-shortened 2021 race. On the other hand, drivers have also seen as much as an eight-position gain in the standings following Talladega. That gain was after the 2017 race where more than half the field failed to finish, but at least one driver has come out of the fall Talladega race each of the last four years up at least three positions.

As far as the stats for this year’s second round playoffs so far: Last week’s Texas race had a shake-up index of 14. That’s higher than all but the first year of the stage-racing playoff era.

And the William Byron penalty (which Hendrick Motorsports is contesting) has a shake-up index of seven.

Friday 5: What matters most in Cup? Youth or experience

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As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?

Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing. 

In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.

MORE: Kyle Busch and JGR: A long, sometimes rough road

As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?

Keselowski was replaced by Austin Cindric, who turned 24 earlier this month. Joe Gibbs Racing is expected to replace Busch with Ty Gibbs, who turns 20 in October.

Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts. 

“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.

Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger. 

The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years. 

That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.

Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.

It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years. 

Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors. 

Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.

You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question. 

“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”

Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.

Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”

Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”

For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies. 

It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time. 

This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship. 

None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below. 

Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.

“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”

Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.

Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race. 

“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever. 

“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”

2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both enter Saturday’s playoff elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) outside a transfer spot. 

Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.

Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.

He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.

“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”

Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.

Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.

Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there. 

“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

3. What it will take to advance

A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.

Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated. 

William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.

Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years. 

Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.

Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.

Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons. 

Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion. 

Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.

Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round. 

Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round. 

Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs. 

Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round. 

4. Bristol’s questions  

Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams. 

The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).

“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that. 

“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”

While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.

“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”

5. Back in the playoffs 

Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”

Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.

“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.

Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.

Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”

With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in. 

Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points. 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kyle Busch to join Richard Childress Racing in 2023

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A move once considered unthinkable became reality Tuesday when Kyle Busch announced that he will drive the No. 8 car for Richard Childress Racing next season.

“This is probably one of the biggest days of my life and my career,” Busch said.

“What a big day,” car owner Richard Childress said.

Busch called his decision to join RCR “a no-brainer” and cited the opportunity to win races as a factor. Busch said it is a multi-year deal.

The 37-year-old Busch made the announcement at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is where his career will be honored once it is complete. 

The two-time Cup champion — the only active multi-time Cup champ in the series — will make the move to RCR after having been with Joe Gibbs Racing since 2008.

Busch has scored 56 of his 60 career Cup victories with Joe Gibbs Racing. No other driver has won as many series races in that time. Jimmie Johnson is next with 50 and Kevin Harvick has 49. 

Busch has won a total of 146 races in Cup and Xfinity with Joe Gibbs Racing, scoring 90 Xfinity wins with the organization. 

Busch thanked car owner Joe Gibbs for all that he has done for him.

Gibbs said in a statement: “Kyle has been a major part of our history and success here at Joe Gibbs Racing. We are thankful for all his contributions to our organization over the years. When you look at all that he has accomplished already, it is truly remarkable, and we know someday we will be celebrating his Hall of Fame induction.

“We also know he still has many more achievements in our sport ahead of him including competing for the championship this season. We wish Kyle, Samantha, Brexton, and Lennix the very best.”

Harvick said in late July that wherever Busch went, he would make an impact.

“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”

Busch becomes the first Cup champion Richard Childress Racing has had since Dale Earnhardt, who died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. 

“We’d like to welcome Kyle back to Team Chevy, where he started his NASCAR career,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. Vice President, Performance and Motorsports, in a statement. “As a 60 Cup race winner and two-time champion, he will be a valuable addition to Richard Childress Racing and the Chevrolet line-up. We look forward to working with Kyle starting in 2023.”

Childress said sponsor announcements would be coming later. He said that he told Tyler Reddick about an hour before the announcement that he would not be in the No. 8 next year. Randall Burnett, who is serving as Reddick’s crew chief this season, will be Busch’s crew chief next year.

Childress said RCR will have three charters for next year and have Busch, Reddick and Austin Dillon in its lineup.

No one could have imagined at the start of the year this would be Busch’s last season with JGR.

But Busch has been headed on this path after a sponsor pulled out of negotiations with Joe Gibbs Racing earlier this year. The team needed a new sponsor after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it would not return to the team and the series. 

Joe Gibbs Racing was in talks with Oracle, a technology corporation based in Austin, Texas, to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team, but that fell through when the technology market changed and Oracle began looking at cutting costs and issuing layoffs. 

Without a sponsor, it became more difficult for Gibbs to sign Busch. He talked with other teams. Those who emerged as the leaders were Kaulig Racing, RCR and 23XI Racing.

A pairing of Busch and Childress presents a unique tandem among former combatants. 

Upset with Busch’s actions toward his drivers in the Truck Series, Childress found Busch in the garage at Kansas in 2011, removed his watch and repeatedly punched Busch. NASCAR fined Childress $150,000 for instigating the altercation.

They’ve since bridged the gap and will begin working together in 2023. 

Will Cup playoffs be calmer at Kansas? Maybe not

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After a wacky opening race at Darlington Raceway last Sunday, the Cup Series playoffs will continue this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Darlington is unique in design, in its history of leaders suddenly turning into losers and in its ability to eat tires.

Kansas is wider, smoother and much less intimidating. Drivers typically race three-wide and often dive onto the track apron to make passes, knowing there’s plenty of room to maneuver.

So Sunday’s second race in the playoffs should be considerably tamer, right?

Not necessarily.

Kansas can be a bear.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The May race, won by Kurt Busch, sparked trouble even before the green flag. Chris Buescher blew a tire in practice and sustained damage. Cody Ware and Ryan Blaney spun out, also in practice. Denny Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano also had tire issues in practice.

There were more tire problems in the race, contributing to eight cautions that ate 47 of the race’s 267 laps. Seven of the 16 drivers who would qualify for the playoffs finished 15th or worse in that race, and seven were penalized for various pit-road infractions. Kyle Larson was involved in some frantic racing with Kurt Busch, smacking the wall while searching for the lead before Busch won. Larson finished second.

In last year’s playoff race at Kansas, Blaney, Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch crashed.

What does Larson expect Sunday?

“I feel like every week has been pretty wild and unpredictable,” he said. “Darlington was maybe a little bit more than normal compared to other races this year, but I feel like every race this year, the majority of the field has had some sort of issue go on throughout the race. As much as I want to say Kansas will be different, I just don’t know. It could be even crazier.”

There have been other memorable “events” over the years at Kansas.

In the 2015 playoffs, Logano wrecked Matt Kenseth and went on to win the race. Two races later, Kenseth famously retaliated, driving hard into Logano’s car at Martinsville and crashing both vehicles. Kenseth was suspended for the next two races.

In 2013, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch tangled near the end of an Xfinity (then Nationwide) Series race at Kansas. Keselowski climbed from his wrecked car, ran across the grass separating pit road from the track and pointed at Busch’s crew before motioning to his rear end (his, not his car’s).

MORE: NASCAR addresses fire issues with rule change

In 2008, during a stretch when boring racing at several tracks had put a cloud over the Cup Series, Carl Edwards decided to create a magic moment. Running second to Jimmie Johnson on the last lap, Edwards made a daring charge to the inside down the backstretch and passed Johnson. Edwards’ momentum carried him into the outside wall in the third turn, however, and Johnson drove by him for the lead and the win. Edwards later said he actually meant to hit the wall — just not so hard.

The jumbled playoff standings, turned topsy-turvy by the Darlington results, make it even more likely that Kansas could produce some unusual activity. None of the 16 playoff drivers managed to reach victory lane at Darlington (Erik Jones won the race), and the results sent drivers moving up and down the point standings like dizzy squirrels on a tree trunk.

Christopher Bell gained six spots to fourth. Kevin Harvick dropped seven spots to 16th. Chase Elliott plummeted from first to ninth. Alex Bowman gained five spots to 10th.

After next week’s race at Bristol, the 16-driver playoff field will be trimmed to 12. Those currently below the cutoff line are Austin Cindric, Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Harvick.

Eight of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have never won a playoff race, but three of the 16 (Logano, Harvick and Hamlin) have won three times at Kansas.