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Friday 5: Kyle Busch making an impact at RCR off the track

Nate Ryan, Dale Jarrett, and Steve Letarte address whether or not Chevrolets can remain on a roll at Atlanta Motor Speedway after sweeping the first four races of the regular season.

While Kyle Busch gave Richard Childress Racing its first Cup victory of the season last month, his greatest contribution could be how he pushes the organization and those teams aligned with RCR.

Busch’s level of preparedness, his observations and questions in meetings already have made an impact in the beginning of his tenure.

“He’s bringing things to the table for us that we haven’t had,” Andy Petree, RCR vice president of competition, told NBC Sports.

Austin Dillon cited Busch’s feedback as among the areas his new teammate would make at impact when the deal with Busch was announced last September.

“You’re probably never going to have to doubt any kind of feedback from him,” Dillon said then. “If he says the cars are struggling here, we go to work on that.”

Busch said he and the team discussed in January how they prepare for each event and how to merge those ideas in their meetings.

“I brought up a lot of different topics,” Busch said. “I still don’t have all of what I want accomplished yet. Most of that is data-driven and stuff you get after practice or after qualifying, so still pushing on much of that.”

Busch described the team meetings as having “gone well” this season.

“I feel like they’ve been a little bit productive,” he said. “Hopefully those that are with us in those meetings feel the same way, so it’s been a good sense. I know Austin and I have really liked the way that it is and how we got it set up, so it’s been useful for us.”

Petree, who was Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief for Earnhardt’s final two Cup championships, says that Busch provides more detail with the car than Earnhardt did.

“Earnhardt was an incredible driver, but he didn’t have this knack that Kyle has for breaking down so many details in the car,” Petree said. “Earnhardt would go out and get you every ounce of speed that was in it, but he wasn’t really great as far as giving that detailed feedback.

“You had to pull anything out of him. … Kyle will just pick that thing apart, the things that you don’t even think about.”

Kaulig Racing and Legacy Motor Club are aligned with Richard Childress Racing and all three teams meet together. Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley says seeing how Busch operates in those sessions has made an impact on him.

“I’ll say Kyle, he never doesn’t ask a question,” Haley said. “If there’s even a thought in his mind of a what if or why, he’s not afraid to ask it. I really appreciate it of him.

“Our alliance and our organization in general, he pushes us. He’s not afraid to say, ‘Hey, this is not what we’re supposed to be doing. Hey this is wrong,’ or ‘Hey, this is right.’

“I think what you appreciate about him is that he always asks why. Even though he has this much experience, he always still has to learn. He’s pushing all of us in a direction that is good.”

Erik Jones experienced team meetings with Busch when both were at Joe Gibbs Racing. Now with Legacy Motor Club, Jones is again seeing the impact Busch can make with a team off the track.

“He approaches the meetings more like we did in those days,” Jones said. “I think it’s been really good for the group. I think, overall, it’s brought some good structure in, it’s brought some good and better feedback and probably focusing on more of the correct things that need to, things that are really going to make the cars go fast.”

2. Restart zone plans

Sunday’s event at Atlanta Motor Speedway marks the final race in NASCAR’s five-race trial with the expanded restart zone. Series officials will decide after this weekend whether to keep the restart zone the size it is now or return it to its smaller size.

NASCAR expanded the length of the restart zone to give the leader more time to decide when to go. In a smaller restart zone, other drivers have more of a chance to guess when the leader will go and match him, limiting the leader’s advantage.

The only major incident in the restart zone came at Fontana, California, when leader Joey Logano waited toward the end of the zone to go. Other cars behind guessed when he would go and then had to slow since he had yet to accelerate, causing an accordion affect that collected nine cars.

“I don’t think that is going to be the last time you see it,” Ross Chastain said of the incident. “I don’t think it will be that big, but some stack-ups and some bumper-tagging will keep happening.”

Kyle Busch said he doesn’t believe the expanded restart zone provides much of an advantage for the leader.

“I think all it’s done is cause that wreck at California,” Busch said. “So, in my opinion, it’s done nothing different; nothing on the positive end. It’s only added a negative end to it because at California, Joey was just maintaining his speed and everyone was gaining, gaining, gaining, gaining and closing up their gaps because they were all trying to lay back and then time the run.

“So he just waited for everybody to run into everybody and then went at the end of the zone. So the later you make that zone, the more anticipation everyone has and the more of an accordion effect that you’ll get. I knew that going in, and I was not a proponent of lengthening that zone, but nobody tends to listen to me a whole lot.”

Martin Truex Jr., who said he is fine with the restart zone continuing as is, said that the key is what the drivers do.

“They tell us all not to lay back on restarts all the time,” he said. “A lot of guys get away with doing it a whole lot more than others. As long as we can all stay closed up, it’s not going to be a problem. It’s given the leader an advantage, which is what it should be.”

3. Reunited

The suspensions to all four Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs — as part of the significant penalties NASCAR levied against the teams for modifications to the hood louvers — leads to a driver/crew chief combination reuniting.

Greg Ives will serve as the crew chief for Alex Bowman this weekend at Atlanta. Ives was Bowman’s crew chief from 2018-22 after having worked together in the 10 races Bowman filled in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016.

Ives has worked on the Garage 56 car Hendrick Motorsports is preparing for NASCAR to showcase at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Asked if Ives had helped speed the communication between Bowman and new crew chief Blake Harris this season, Bowman said last weekend: “Things has been great. Greg has been super busy with the Garage 56 deal. I’ve seen him here and there but not a ton. I think Greg was really good about kind of preparing Blake and helping the transition in, but he’s super occupied right now.”

Although Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the penalties, the team decided to have all four crew chiefs sit out this weekend’s race to count toward one of the four races they’ll have to miss should they lose their appeal.

Not having a regular crew chief this weekend shouldn’t adversely impact the Hendrick teams. There’s no practice. Cars will have only qualifying before the race. Crew chiefs typically have limited impact in a superspeedway race.

4. Focused

With his move to Cup, rookie Ty Gibbs no longer is going back-and-forth between the Xfinity and Cup Series. Last year, Gibbs won the Xfinity championship and ran 15 Cup races, filling in for the injured Kurt Busch.

With his focus on Cup, it’s allowed him to concentrate on preparing for those events and also having some time off.

“Definitely a little more peaceful, for sure,” Gibbs said of this season compared to last year and running both series. “Having a little bit more free time …I think is really important. Allowing me to have more time to study one thing, I think, that’s allowed me to get around the learning curve quicker than it was having to worry about winning the championship in the other series and just like having so much stuff going on.”

Gibbs can appreciate what Josh Berry is doing, competing in the Xfinity Series while filling in for an injured Chase Elliott.

“I respect and really appreciate Josh,” Gibbs said. “He’s a good friend to me and he’s a really great racecar driver and very talented. Happy for him for the opportunity and hope that Chase heals up fast.

“But for (Berry), I think just enjoying the moment is the biggest thing. It’s really hard because there’s a lot going on. You’re worried about running Xfinity and Cup. Just enjoy the moment. I think that’s the biggest thing. Learn as much as you can.”

5. Avoiding history

The two Atlanta races last year combined for 24 cautions — including 19 for incidents.

At least 30 cars were involved in accidents in both races last year, the first year of the track reconfiguration that included higher banking in the turns.

Both races had at least one accident that involved at least nine cars.

“I feel like Atlanta is probably the most mentally draining place that we go to now,” Chase Briscoe said. “It’s kind of a hybrid. It’s obviously a shorter track by an entire mile versus a Daytona or Talladega, but it’s the same concept of racing.

“You’re in a pack, but with being a mile shorter things just happen so much faster. Your reaction time has to be better. The runs develop so much faster and quicker. Your spotter has to be able to communicate to you a lot quicker and your brain has to process things a lot quicker.”