Friday 5: Kyle Busch, Randall Burnett forming a potent combination
Crew chief Randall Burnett admits that work remains, pointing to his team’s struggles on short tracks, but what he and Kyle Busch have achieved in their first year together is among the key storylines of this Cup season.
Since moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, Busch has won three races, tying William Byron for most victories this season.
“Our plan is to win a lot with Kyle,” car owner Richard Childress said after Busch won last weekend at WWT Raceway.
Only four times since 2008 has a new driver/crew chief combination won three of the first 15 races in a Cup season.
Busch has been that driver three times. The only other driver to do so in the last 15 years was Mark Martin in 2009 with Alan Gustafson.
Busch won three of the first 15 races in 2008 with Steve Addington. Busch also did so in 2015 with Adam Stevens. Busch went on to win the first of his two Cup championships that season.
What makes Busch’s achievement this year stand out is the limited track time Cup drivers have compared to 2008 and ’15. It wasn’t uncommon then to have three practice sessions per race weekend — totaling more than two hours. That gave new driver/crew chief combinations plenty of time on track and afterward to discuss how the car felt and what was needed.
With one practice session of about 20 minutes most Cup race weekends these days, drivers and crew chiefs don’t have that luxury. They have simulators, and crew chiefs have more data than before, but it can still take time for new partnerships to work.
“We do spend a lot of time on the simulator with Kyle,” Burnett told NBC Sports this week.
Burnett also says that SMT data has helped his understanding of what Busch needs in a car.
“I can watch what is going on during the race and maybe anticipate a little bit of what he’s got going on vs. having to wait for him to describe it to me without kind of doing it blind,” Burnett said.
Burnett admits that as each week goes by, the communication with Busch gets better.
“I’m learning the right adjustments to make when he says a certain thing,” Burnett said. “So, getting that notebook built up a little bit, I think is helping us.”
The pairing of Busch, Burnett and the No. 8 team was intriguing before the season. Burnett helped Tyler Reddick win three races last year. Busch came to RCR motivated to prove that four wins in his final three seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing was an aberration. Busch averaged more than five Cup victories a season from 2015-19.
While the combination of an elite driver and a rising team looked to be a potent match, not everything meshed. Burnett notes that it wasn’t as if the No. 8 team could use all of Reddick’s setups with Busch.
“Kyle likes to drive a little bit tighter race car, while Tyler liked to drive a little bit looser race car,” Burnett said. “We can’t just plug and play everything that we had last year that we had success with. We kind of have got to adapt it and make it work.”
There’s still room for growth. In the last 10 races, Busch has two wins, a runner-up finish, five top 10s but also five finishes of 14th or worse. Busch enters this weekend’s race at Sonoma with three consecutive top-10 finishes, tied for his longest streak of the season.
“We’ve had some really good runs,” Busch said after last weekend’s victory. “We’ve had three wins obviously, which is great, but we’ve also had some of the dismal days as well. We’ve had peaks and valleys so far this year.”
No crew chief, though, has won as often as Burnett has in the last 34 races, dating back to last July’s Road America race. He has six wins during that time. Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Kyle Larson, and Stevens, crew chief for Christoper Bell, are next with four wins each.
Burnett’s victories have come at a variety of tracks. He won on two road courses with Reddick (Road America and Indianapolis) and a 1.5-mile track with Reddick (Texas). Burnett’s victories with Busch have come at a 2-mile track (Fontana), a superspeedway (Talladega) and a 1.25-mile track (WWT Raceway).
“I think the Next Gen car really helped reset our program and kind of took those disadvantages we have had, whether it be aero or something we were missing with our vehicle geometry, whatever it may have been that we were lacking in speed with on the Gen-6 car, the Next Gen car was kind of the great equalizer,” Burnett said.
“I think our group really adapted to that well, and said, ‘OK, now, we’re back on a level playing field. How are we going to stay on top of this? What choices are we going to make? How are we going to make our cars better each week?’ … I think everybody, especially on this No. 8 team, works really well together.”
2. Teaching the way
Tyler Reddick enters Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway as one of the favorites, having won three of the last five events on road courses, including earlier this season at Circuit of the Americas.
One of the things he learned on his climb to Cup was to have the proper attitude, a lesson he’s trying to teach his son Beau.
“We will have foot races, and he’s so damn competitive,” Reddick told NBC Sports about Beau. “He expects to be able to beat me in a foot race even though he’s 3 years old. When he loses, he loses his mind.
“That takes me back to when I was younger and kind of the same way.”
Reddick said what changed him was when he ran dirt late models.
“I ran those things for five, six years and won only a handful of times,” he said. “I just got my ass kicked all the time by guys that had been racing late models longer than I had been alive. I think you really appreciate the nice days. The days that were tough, I think in a weird way, it helped me manage those tougher days and just go right back to work and get right back into the (proper) mindset.
“I think back, there was definitely a time when I was a lot younger, running outlaw karts and doing all this stuff where like if I didn’t win two out of three classes or three out of the four classes I was running, I was really upset.”
That’s what he sees in his son’s competitive spirit.
Reddick said he noticed his Cup rookie season in 2020 that the attitude he had when younger “started to creep back in a little bit.
“But you know, the way to get out of it is just work harder. ... It’s like why get mad when you can just take that, instead of expelling that anger publicly or at the people that are part of your team supporting you, why expel it that way? Just go take that energy and apply it to getting better.”
3. Looking ahead
Although Aric Almirola signed a multi-year contract with Stewart-Haas Racing in August 2022, he told reporters this week that his future plans are “fluid.”
Almirola announced before the 2022 season that it would his final year driving full-time in Cup. He was brought back with sponsor Smithfield with the multi-year deal.
Almirola talked this week about the importance of family. He also said how that would weigh in his plans beyond this season.
“It’s still about making sure that I’m having fun and enjoying driving the race car and making sure that I can be a husband and a father and all those things, and not sacrifice that,” he said.
“I love what I do. I love my job. I love my career, but at the end of the day chasing a little bit more money and more trophies and those things is not what it’s about for me.”
Almirola, who formerly drove for Richard Petty’s team briefly in 2010 and from 2012-17, also shared a story about Petty that impacts him.
“I’ve gotten the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Richard, and he doesn’t ever sit down at Thanksgiving with all 200 of his trophies, ever,” Almirola said. “He sits down at Thanksgiving with his family, and he sits down to share a meal with people he cares about.
“All the time I’ve ever gotten to spend with him and talk about things outside of racing and talking about life, he’s been a huge impact on me just being able to recognize and realize that you don’t always have to chase the success, because it doesn’t really define who you are once you stop driving a race car.
“What defines who you are is how you treat other people and how you are with the people you love.”
4. More than $1 million
Last week, I spotlighted how fines for Cup technical infractions were near $1 million this season and the season isn’t half over.
The sport topped $1 million in fines for Cup technical infractions this week. As part of the penalties to Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club for an L1 infraction discovered at the R&D Center, NASCAR fined crew chief Dave Elenz $75,000 and suspended him two races.
Among the top fines this year:
$400,000 ($100,000 to each of the four Hendrick teams) as part of the penalties for modifications to hood louvers at Phoenix.
$250,000 as part of the penalties for the counterfeit part on the Stewart-Haas Racing car of Chase Briscoe. That issue was discovered at the R&D Center after the Coca-Cola 600.
$100,000 as part of the penalties to Kaulig Racing for modification of a hood louver on Justin Haley’s car at Phoenix.
All the money from fines goes to the NASCAR Foundation.
5. Last year and this year
Something to think about.
Last year after 15 races, there were 11 different winners.
This year after 15 races, there are 10 different winners.
Last year after 15 races, the top six in points were separated by 40 points.
This year after 15 races, the top eight in points are separated by 44 points.