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Dr. Diandra: Auto Club Speedway first test of Busch-RCR partnership

Marty Snider, Kyle Petty, and Nate Ryan detail why Fontana marks the "real" start to the 2023 Cup season after the Clash at the Coliseum and Daytona, and preview teams and drivers that need a good effort.

Ever since Kyle Busch announced his move to Richard Childress Racing, pundits have questioned whether a Busch-RCR partnership is a step down for the two-time Cup Series champion. I’ve predicted that the move will benefit Busch and RCR.

But the truth is in the data.

The season’s first two events suggest promise. Busch rallied from a spin to place third in the Clash at the Coliseum. His new teammate Austin Dillon took second. But the Clash is an exhibition race on a track unlike any in the points-paying pantheon.

MORE: Fontana race raises questions about NASCAR’s future in Southern California

Busch’s 18th Daytona 500 run ended in disappointment when a last-lap crash dropped him to a 19th-place finish. Before the crash, Busch raced well — individually and teaming up with Dillon.

But the Daytona 500 rarely predicts a driver’s success over the rest of season.

  • The Daytona 500’s high accident rate prevents some of the best drivers from finishing well — or at all.
  • After winning the Daytona 500 in his rookie year, Austin Cindric held first place in the rankings for two weeks. Cindric fell to the mid-teens by the fifth race and stayed there throughout the regular season.
  • Ross Chastain started his breakout 2022 season by finishing 40th out of 40 cars in the Daytona 500. He ended the season in second place.

Large, non-superspeedway ovals have almost disappeared from the NASCAR calendar. Auto Club, Michigan and Pocono each dropped from two races to one race a season. Drivers and fans hope for a return to the Indianapolis oval, but it isn’t happening this year.

Sunday marks the 33rd — and last — race at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway. After the checkered flag flies, the track may be nipped and tucked into a half-mile oval. Or not.

The loss of Auto Club Speedway is a negative for Busch because he does well at these types of tracks. But the one race left provides the perfect setting to evaluate the Busch-RCR partnership’s progression.

Busch at Auto Club Speedway

Take a look at Busch’s 23-race record.

A table showing some of Kyle Busch's stats as part of the argument as to why Auto Club Speedway is a good test of the Busch-RCR partnership

Wins: Busch has the most wins at Auto Club Speedway among full-time active drivers with four. Jimmie Johnson holds the record with six wins, while Kyle Larson’s two wins rank him second among full-time active drivers.

Win Rate: Busch posts a 17.4%-win rate, the second highest of current full-time drivers. Larson ranks first with a win rate of 25.0% — but that’s based on only eight starts.

Average Finish: Busch’s 9.8 average finishing position tops any driver who will race this Sunday. Jimmie Johnson has a 7.6 average finishing position, but Johnson’s 2023 part-time schedule does not include the California track.

Busch also boasts the best top-10 finish rate (69.6%), and the second-best top-five finish rate of 47.8%. Larson and Johnson both have a 50.0% top-five rate, so Busch is not far behind.

And Busch isn’t only good at Auto Club Speedway: His 60 career wins include the four Fontana wins, two Indy oval wins and four Pocono trophies.

Evaluating the Busch-RCR partnership

Auto Club Speedway is an ideal place to evaluate the Busch-RCR partnership because Busch is historically very good there, while RCR has struggled. RCR has won only one race at Auto Club Speedway -- in 2011 with Kevin Harvick behind the wheel. Dillon’s 13.5 average finish comes from last year’s second place and seven finishes of 10th or worse.

I’ll be listening for Busch’s comments during and after Saturday morning practice, especially if the car isn’t as fast as Busch expects it to be. I’m especially interested in the tenor of the exchanges between Busch and crew chief Randall Burnett.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Joey Logano is No. 1

Where the No. 8 team qualifies is a good metric. Busch has a 10.2 average starting position with 60.9% of his qualifying runs placing him in the top 10. Placing outside the top 10 is a negative for the partnership and the race. Four of the last five winners qualified within the top four. Among those five races are two of the three races ever won from the pole at Auto Club Speedway: Larson in 2017 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2018.

A poor qualifying run doesn’t guarantee a bad race. Last year — the only race run at Auto Club Speedway in the Next Gen car — Larson qualified 13th, was sent to the back after making unapproved adjustments and won the race.

Finally, there’s the race finish itself. Barring accidents (the one race Busch didn’t finish at Auto Club Speedway was due to engine trouble), a finish out of the top 10 is a negative for the Busch-RCR partnership.

Auto Club won’t definitively answer the question of whether the Busch-RCR partnership was a good move for Busch. It’s one piece of data among the 36 this season.