Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch is among the best drivers at diagnosing a car and understanding how to make it go faster, so when he says “I don’t know what’s going on” as his Cup car lacks speed, it is a stunning admission.
As the Cup Series reaches the halfway point in the season this weekend, Busch, a two-time series champion, remains winless. Not since 2013 has a reigning Cup champion gone so deep into a season without a points victory.
Busch has not even won a stage this year. He has no playoff points. The longer he goes without scoring playoff points, the more likely that he’ll need to win in later rounds of the playoffs to advance to the championship race for what would be a sixth consecutive year.
“There’s just no speed in our race cars for some reason,” Busch said after his runner-up finish in Wednesday’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I don’t know what’s going on.
“It’s certainly been frustrating this year. It seems like any time I fall into a rhythm, I back up myself just a little bit to 90, 95%, I’m going backwards. I’m getting passed, slowing down. You can’t run at 100% all the time every lap. When you do, you start making mistakes.”
A speeding penalty just past halfway in the Coca-Cola 600 dropped Busch from second place. It took him the rest of the race to climb back into the top five. While he finished fourth, he didn’t have a chance to win that race.
Held up by a lapped car at the second Pocono race, Busch slowed and was hit by Ryan Blaney’s car. The contact sent Busch’s car into the inside wall.
At Kentucky, Busch started on the pole after the random draw but led only nine laps and wasn’t a factor, finishing 21st. That marked his sixth finish of 20th or worse this season. He only had four such finishes last season.
Busch has been vocal about the lack of practice. In the 13 races since the series resumed in May, Cup teams have not had a practice session.
Busch last month at Miami, the lack of practice has impacted his team.
“We would prefer to have a practice, whether it’s 30 minutes, 50 minutes, 60 minutes, whatever it is, but just one set of tires to be able to go out there, get a baseline, run some laps, check our heights and make sure our cambers and stuff are all set and good because so far that’s where we’ve been missing it the most I feel like,” he said a month ago. “We’ve come to some of these race tracks over-cambered on the right-front and we’re really making the right-front tire mad.
“That’s what happened in Bristol for us. We still ran good, but it was still not right and then also Martinsville, that was definitely our problem. We just couldn’t overcome it once we got that lap down and then we went two laps down and then we were one lap down. We were all over the place. One set of tires and one practice would certainly bode well for us.”
Less practice. Need less practice https://t.co/eQsUgPWZdQ
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) July 10, 2020
Having a practice session would require teams to have a backup car. But with NASCAR running multiple races in a week — the Cup Series is in the middle of a stretch of four races in 11 days — and many Cup teams working in shifts at the shop to keep their crews separate, having backup cars prepared is too taxing on teams.
“The further we go, the more difficult it is to run the midweek races or run two races a week, just simply because now we’re having to turn cars around where they were available the first few weeks (back from the COVID-19 break),” said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Christopher Bell.
While Busch struggles, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin has excelled. Hamlin has won four races this season and has 10 top-10 finishes in 17 races. Teammate Martin Truex Jr. has one win and nine top-10 finishes this year.
Busch, who has been a runner-up three times this season, compares this year to 2014 — when Joe Gibbs Racing won two races.
“We struggled super bad when we came out with this new body style, the Gen‑6 body style,” Busch said. “ We were pretty bad as a company at JGR that year.”
Busch said the organization’s turnaround didn’t happen until 2015.
“It took us a good year and a half to get back up to the top of the circle,” said Busch, who went on to win his first Cup title that year. “I don’t know if that’s what we’re on now. I certainly hope not. It’s definitely frustrating. Trust me, it’s not very fun where we’re at.”
2. A fine line
It wasn’t uncommon, crew chief Greg Erwin said, that at some point during a race he would call for an adjustment to be made to Matt DiBenedetto’s car and it wouldn’t work.
It’s an issue the new driver and crew chief combination might have resolved earlier this year had there been practice. Without that extra track time, the two had to learn each other on the fly.
“I would find myself typically over-adjusting to the intensity of his comments about how his car was driving,” Erwin said.
Erwin and his engineers spent time going into the Pocono doubleheader trying to find a setup that would suit DiBendetto’s driving style.
“We really put a lot of emphasis on our communication and fixing and addressing one thing each week and learning a little more about each other, and I feel like we’ve kind of dialed it in, especially here recently,” DiBenedetto said.
DiBenedetto also noted that he’s focused on taking what the car will give him instead of trying to do more than it can handle.
“It’s a little easier to be tempted to be like, ‘We’re so close to that guy right there (near the lead),’ ” he said. “I’ve worked real hard on making sure, no matter what, to just focus on our car and our day and how to make our car the best it can be.”
The result is that DiBenedetto is the only driver to score points in all eight stages in the last four Cup races.
DiBenedetto also has scored the same number of stage points during that time as Kevin Harvick.
Here are the drivers who have scored the most stage points in the last four races:
39 – Ryan Blaney
38 – Aric Almirola
37 – Matt DiBenedetto
37 – Kevin Harvick
34 – Joey Logano
DiBenedetto’s success also helped the team climb to 12th in owner points. That’s significant because of the way the starting lineup is determined.
Those in positions 1-12 in the owner points draw for those starting spots. While DiBenedetto will start 11th Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, he could have started as high as the pole if that number had been drawn. For a team 13th in the owner points, they draw for positions 13-24. So one spot in the owner points could mean the difference between starting on the pole or as far back as 24th in a race.
“You may be 12th one week,” Erwin said, “and you may sit on the pole two weeks later, so we’ll try and turn that into points every opportunity we get.”
3. A better way?
For as much as Aric Almirola seems to draw a front row starting spot — Sunday’s race at Texas (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) marks the fifth time in the last 10 races he’s started first or second — Christopher Bell seems to draw about as poor a starting spot as possible.
Bell is in the group that draws for positions 24-36 based on his spot in the owner points. He moved up to 25th in owners points after last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
He’ll start 33rd at Texas, marking the seventh time in the last eight races he will have started 32nd or worse. The one exception was the second Pocono race, which inverted the top 20 finishers from the first Pocono race. He started 17th based off his fourth-place finish the day before.
Bell is in this spot because he’s so far back in points. He opened the season by finishing 21st, 33rd, 38th and 24th. That put him 35th in car owner points at Phoenix in March before the season was suspended by the pandemic.
Bell has struggled to overcome that start.
Bell’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, wonders if there is not another way to determine the starting lineup even without qualifying.
“In a perfect world, you just invert the top 20 from a previous event like they did a couple of times,” Ratcliff said. “I thought that worked well. That gives teams that are performing well at this point in the season opportunities to start closer to the front.
“For us, the first four races were a disaster and now we’re starting (33rd) because of that, but we’re performing well enough that if we had an invert, we could start in the top 15 week every week.
“I know that (NASCAR has) done the best they could with the current situation … everyone is not going to be happy with the decision that they’ve come up with. For the most part, it’s fair, but if we did this long term, I definitely think we could do a better job with it.”
4. Lost points
Jimmie Johnson holds what would be the final playoff spot despite missing one race, having his car disqualified in another and wrecking while in the lead within a lap of winning a stage.
It’s been that kind of year for the seven-time champ who is in his final full-time Cup season.
Johnson missed Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19. He finished second in the Coca-Cola 600, but his car failed inspection after that race, costing him 45 points. He was set to win the first stage at the first Darlington race before crashing on the last lap of that stage. He finished that race with one point.
It’s easy to see that between those three races, Johnson lost about 90 points. If he had those points, he’d be ninth in the standings and in a much more secure spot to make the playoffs.
5. A Stewart-Haas Racing weekend at Texas?
Stewart-Haas Racing has a good chance to make it three points wins in a row in the Cup Series. Kevin Harvick won at Indianapolis and that was followed by rookie Cole Custer‘s victory last weekend at Kentucky.
Harvick, who is making his 700th career Cup start this weekend, has won three of the last five seriews races at Texas. He’s scored a record 11 consecutive top-10 finishes there. Teammate Aric Almirola enters the weekend with six top-10 finishes in a row, the longest streak of his career. He has placed eighth or better in each of the last three Texas races. Clint Bowyer finished second there in March 2019. Custer won in the Xfinity Series there in November 2018.