Ryan: Can Kyle Busch find his happy place with less horsepower?
Kyle Busch clearly has a problem with slower cars.
We don’t mean those that got in his way Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver angrily challenged and questioned the racing acumen and credentials of Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.
No, it’s the speed in his own No. 18 Toyota that seems to have left Busch miffed many times during a season of too much discontent for the mercurial superstar.
It’s been almost a year since the die was cast on perhaps the most controversial competition decision during Busch’s 15 seasons of racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit.
The move in 2019 to a lower horsepower, higher downforce package (i.e., slower and more stable cars with 550 hp on big speedways and 750 on shorter tracks) – a sudden reversal after years of heading mostly in the opposite direction – initially wasn’t met well within the ranks, and Busch was among many big-name drivers who voiced staunch opposition.
A case can be made that a reason behind the dissolution of the Drivers Council was its inefficacy in blunting the momentum for adopting a rules configuration that inherently affects harnessing a 3,400-pound stock through first-class hand-eye coordination and throttle control.
But the public grumbling gradually has subsided this season. Many stopped swimming against the strong tide, choosing to focus on their teams’ results or simply swallow their pride and accept the new rules.
The most notable resistance remained from Busch, the driver who arguably has had the most success with the 2019 rules package as anyone.
It’s somewhat remarkable that Busch, the regular-season champion who entered the playoffs with four wins and a 45-point cushion that likely will carry him to the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the fifth consecutive year, would be the most high-profile remaining holdout on the package, which mostly was aimed at producing closer racing at 1.5-mile tracks such as Vegas (and at least seems to achieve that on restarts, more on that below).
But his pushback also is perfectly understandable in the context of Busch wanting to maximize a skillset tailored to outdrive anyone when the challenge is taming stock cars that aren’t glued to the pavement as much as they are in 2019.
When Busch pouts (as he did after Vegas) that it’s impossible to pass at any track anymore (mostly because of aerodynamic turbulence for a trailing car), he is both wrong (in that winning teammate Martin Truex Jr. proved Sunday that you still can gain positions) and right (in that Busch can’t advance through the field using the same manhandling style he once did).
That makes it doubly frustrating for an already emotionally charged personality who can fly off the handle even faster than he drives.
“Kyle is just plain and simple unhappy,” analyst Jeff Burton said in the NASCAR on NBC Splash & Go weekly feature Tuesday (video above). “He wants to race a certain way, and that’s not the way we’re racing. He’s going to have to find a way to get above it. He’s going to have to find a way to focus on performance and championships and do the things that he is so good at.
“I think Kyle has convinced himself that the things he’s so good at he can no longer do, but I’ve watched from the best seat in the house every week, and people do pass and people do find a way to make things happen, but they do it differently than two years ago. I feel bad for him because he is a hell of a race car driver. He wants to drive the thing a certain way, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. He’s going to have to find a way to embrace it, but it’s obviously hard for him to do.”
This is immaterial, by the way, to how Busch carried himself with his infamous truculence as he faced a barrage of questions (mostly fair and well-stated, by the way) after Sunday’s race.
Like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt before him (and Smoke’s unhappiness in 2004, when he clashed often with officials and peers, is reminiscent of the current situation for Rowdy), churlishness is a byproduct of Busch’s greatness.
For some fans, it’s also part of his appeal.
Even if he were completely happy with the racing, there always will be regrettable moments in the media bullpen after a race that breaks badly for Busch.
It’s his essence, and it’s unfair to ask him to be someone else, especially when the biggest casualties of his combativeness are reporters’ feelings.
On the scale of bad behavior across professional sports, Busch has been a relative choirboy.
Should he be more cognizant that postrace interviews are as much about serving fans as the media (which often is the conduit to Rowdy Nation)?
Perhaps, but if he wants to be that way and can live with potential consequences (whether the ire of series officials or sponsors), he shouldn’t be asked to change by NASCAR and a fan base that wants its drivers candid and colorful.
Busch meets those standards better than any current star. In the right mood, his interviews are articulate, insightful and steeped in history. His issues with the package aren’t about his personality or how it’s been impacted.
The much bigger concern is how the dissatisfaction with 550 horsepower affects his performance behind the wheel. From when he hit the wall in the opening laps while apparently pushing the envelope after starting 20th, Busch was the weak link in the No. 18 team at Las Vegas (as Steve Letarte said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast).
That rarely happens with Busch, an elite talent who probably could have become a champion in any series he chose to race anywhere in the world.
But it has been true too many times this season as the 2015 series champion has seemed a victim of distracted driving on a semi-regular basis.
He hit the wall with the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two months ago and also seemed way off his game at Watkins Glen International with errors in the Xfinity and Cup races. On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Letarte said Busch’s problems with the lapped cars at Vegas were self-induced.
Drivers make mistakes, but these have been uncharacteristic for Busch, who is 13 races and more than three months removed from his most recent win.
There’s a NASCAR saying that drivers sometimes need to slow down in order to go faster.
But asking Kyle Busch to celebrate driving at medium instead of maximum power seems sacrilege.
It’s no wonder he’s struggling with it.
Chase Elliott’s move to slow down and help Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron under caution on Lap 181 was legal, but it came some risk and raises some interesting questions, as NASCAR on NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton (above) explained.
After spinning in Turn 4, Byron was able to enter the pits immediately to change his flat left-side tires. But he stayed on the lead lap only because Elliott eased off the accelerator while leading and allowed the No. 24 Chevrolet to exit the pits ahead of the No. 9.
Though slowing to at least 200 feet behind the pace car, Elliott hadn’t been picked up yet as the leader under the yellow flag. Joey Logano, running second, actually accelerated past Elliot just past the finish line.
Though Burton advocated Logano speeding up even earlier to put greater pressure on NASCAR to make a call on whether Elliott was maintaining reasonable speed as the leader, NASCAR officials later relayed to Burton that Elliott would have remained in first even if Logano had made a more demonstrable challenge (because Elliott would have been ruled to be using a “cautious pace” to catch up to the pace car).
Still, NASCAR has penalized leaders for failure to maintain reasonable speed under yellow (notably Marcos Ambrose stalling on a hill at Sonoma Raceway in June 2010). And if Byron hadn’t been a teammate, or if it had been later in the playoffs, Elliott might have been on the pace car’s rear bumper to ensure trapping him a lap down.
“Chase Elliott has the ability to set that cautious pace,” Letarte said on the new playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Did he set it to save William Byron a lap? Absolutely.
“I see a teammate playing nicer earlier in the playoff than perhaps we would have seen. If Hendrick Motorsports was dominant with 15 or 18 wins, I think Chase doesn’t care about (Byron) and tries to pin him because he sees him as (a threat). It shows perhaps Hendrick in their struggles, their relationship has been galvanized where they’re looking out for one another.”
Daniel, we hardly knew yet, but it’s fairly obvious what was coming next.
Ever since team owner Richard Childress essentially volunteered that Tyler Reddick was destined for a Cup ride during a July 30 interview, it was clear that Daniel Hemric was in trouble during a disappointing rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. Asked a few days later about Childress’ comments, Hemric seemed less than certain about his future at the team.
It also isn’t clear if the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native will remain in Cup, though there are a few lesser rides that could come open.
Hemric is unlikely to be considered for a potential top-flight opening next season, and the only vacancy likely would be at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has yet to confirm Clint Bowyer or Daniel Suarez as returning and probably would move in Cole Custer if either leaves. Things seem to be trending well for Bowyer, who won his first pole position in 12 years after making the playoffs and was ebullient in Vegas until his 25th place finish.
Suarez also ran well before finishing 20th after contact with Joey Logano, qualifying second and leading 29 laps. But he said he had no timeframe for learning if he would return to SHR for a second year. The past two seasons, the team has waited until the offseason to hire its No. 41 Ford driver.
“We’ll still working on a couple of things,” Suarez said of 2020. “We have some good opportunities sponsorship-wise. There are some good things coming, but you never know. This sport is extremely unpredictable. We’ll just have to take one day at a time.”
Though making the playoffs would have helped, Suarez believes he can make up for it with a victory: “The past is the past. We can’t change that. What we can change is we have 10 more weeks to keep improving. We have nothing in our heads but to get wins. If we are able to make it to victory lane this year, I won’t even think about the playoffs. Who cares about the playoffs if we can make it to victory lane? If we win one of the next 10, believe me, nobody will remember that we didn’t make the playoffs.”
Also unsure of his status for next year is Ross Chastain, who is focused on trying to win a truck championship with team owner Al Niece.
“I got nothing” for next year, Chastain said last week. “No one is calling now to put me in a fast Cup car. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m racing my butt off trying to be the best I can be. I’ve got so much opportunity now. I’ve got more races on the Xfinity side to compete and run up front. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m making my living, paying my bills by driving race cars as fast as I can. And I’m driving for multiple people, and they all want me to drive.”
Chastain has maintained a working relationship at Chip Ganassi Racing despite losing an Xfinity ride with the team because of an offseason sponsor pullout. He said his job for now in Cup when he races for underfunded Premium Motorsports is “to not make the news or crash the car. Even if I don’t crash, getting in someone’s way or being in the leader’s way coming down to the end or hitting someone on pit road. All that stuff you think it’s easy, but it’s so hard to be a slow car. It’s hard. I learned a lot in doing it, and it helps when I get in something that’s fast.”
When the first NASCAR Playoff Media Day without Jimmie Johnson happened, the seven-time series champion took steps to ensure he avoided it.
Johnson shifted the days of a mountain bike trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to forget being sidelined from championship contention with 10 races remaining for the first time in his 18 Cup seasons. Though hitting the trails helped, he couldn’t avoid seeing glimpses of the 16 playoff drivers making the rounds in Las Vegas when he opened social media last Thursday.
“Not being there, it stung,” Johnson said. “It’s probably good that it stung. It’s been a nice gut check for me. I should be part of that. I want to be part of that. All those things are there. In a weird way, I was glad to see the 16 drivers and all that went along with that.”
The goal the rest of the season for Johnson, who turned 44 Tuesday two days after an 11th at Vegas, is to end a two-year winless drought.
“We just have to put a stake in the ground that we’ve got to win,” he said. “We just need to see progress at a rapid pace in the right direction. We were making progress, but the sport evolves, the team evolves, and we need to take big chunks out of that gap. That’s ultimately what we need to do. If we continue to take chunks out of the gap as we have, we’ll ultimately be back in victory lane.
“It hurts not being in the playoffs. It really bothers me, but at the end of the day, it’s good to have that effect on me. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m mad I’m not in the playoffs. I’m going to use that as fuel to push us through and get us back to where we need to be.”
For this observer, Las Vegas offered the chance to watch the 550 horsepower package from a fresh vantage point. Here were a few modest observations from the 1.5-mile speedway’s frontstretch press box near the start-finish line:
--The term “Insane Restarts” (or crazy, or even psychotic, if you prefer) gets tossed around so much it probably should be trademarked, but the first few laps after every green flag are breathtaking – better than a classic restrictor-plate race at Daytona or Talladega, really.
--Five laps or so after the restart, though, the racing looked like it has for the bulk of 1.5-mile tracks for the last 25 years.
--If you’re looking, you can find passing throughout the field … just not necessarily at the point.
When Las Vegas Motor Speedway made its Cup debut on March 1, 1998 (a race also covered by this writer), it was met with mixed reviews before a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 that had been promised “insane” five-wide racing for three hours. Instead, the fans saw largely a snoozefest won by Mark Martin in which Fords took 13 of the top 15 spots and the yellow flew only twice (both for single-car spins).
Sunday’s race was much better and memorable than the debut 21 years ago, but when viewed through the prism of NASCAR’s incessant tinkering to enhance 1.5-mile racing, it loses luster. Witness the recent ranking in journalist Jeff Gluck’s poll.
Was Las Vegas a good race? 61% of you said Yes. Here’s how it ranks among the six Vegas races in the poll.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) September 17, 2019
1. 2018 Sept — 84%
2. 2016 March — 71%
3. 2017 March — 62%
4. 2019 Sept — 61%
5. 2019 March — 56%
6. 2018 March — 35%
Las Vegas was a crucial marker in the development of the 550 hp package because of a January test that produced spectacularly tight racing and raised hopes that this season’s races might replicate it for two to three hours at a time.
It hasn’t and probably for myriad reasons. Tests rarely simulate real-world conditions with the necessary accuracy, and teams have spent so much time developing car builds since then (and through the different routes of gaining downforce or lessening drag), that there’s likely much more disparity between drivers.
As discussed on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast, though, the conclusion here is that three straight hours of “Insane Restarts” probably would be too much of a good thing anyway.
Short of adding more mandatory cautions to guarantee re-racking the field (that’s not a suggestion, by the way), there probably is little more that can be done to enhance racing at the ubiquitous multipurpose speedways that began littering the Cup schedule in the mid to late 1990s.
If NASCAR wants more slam-bang tight racing that is true to its roots, the solution is much simpler: Run more short tracks instead of trying to retrofit 1.5-mile ovals that always will produce a brand of racing regardless of what is done to the cars.
After qualifying Morgan Shepherd’s car in ninth with a lap for the “Qualifying Hall of Fame” (according to NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr.), will Landon Cassill start more Xfinity races for Shepherd, who seems to be winding down his driving career?
“I’ll let him dictate that,” Cassill said of Shepherd, who turns 78 next month. “I talk to him a lot, and he’s very mindful of his future and what he wants to build. I think me driving and having some speed in his car has been a part of it. He could see himself as a car owner someday probably.”
Cassill, who made 20 laps at Vegas and finished 36th for Shepherd, also posted top-20 qualifying efforts in the No. 89 Chevrolet at Charlotte (13th) and Michigan (16th). The relationship with Shepherd began when Cassill qualified the car 24th in the 2018 season finale after it lacked speed to make the race in practice.
“He called me the hour before qualifying and asked me to hop in,” said Cassill, who was introduced to Shepherd by Xfinity team owner Johnny Davis. “Ever since then, built a relationship and a lot of trust in each other, and he’s asked me to drive it whenever I’m available.
“It definitely makes me feel good to run that well. The experience really helps me a lot and running both (Cup and Xfinity) helps a lot. The speed in his car for Morgan is encouraging. He’s trying to envision what he’s doing for the future. I think having that speed in his car can draw attention to sponsors and putting forth a full-time effort.”
Next season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway will move from opening the playoffs the past two years to opening the second round.
Though the Sept. 27 race will be nearly two weeks later and likely in cooler weather, it’s expected the track will keep the 7 p.m. ET starting time. Out of the oppressive early afternoon heat, the grandstands seemed less empty than then 2018 race, which started shortly at 3 p.m. ET.