Did You Notice? … That despite his Daytona 500 victory, Kurt Busch is having one of the more disappointing seasons of his NASCAR career? In the wake of reports Stewart-Haas Racing will decline his option for 2018, it’s notable to stop and consider that.
When Busch first signed with SHR in 2014, it took awhile to build a solid program. The No. 41 team, carrying sponsorship from only Haas Automation, went the first four races without a top-10 finish. Despite a surprise win at Martinsville it took a change in crew chief, from Daniel Knost to Tony Gibson, at the end of that year for the team to truly hit its stride.
The Gibson-Busch pairing peaked in 2015, earning two victories and a spot in NASCAR’s final eight despite a three-race suspension for Busch to start the year. They earned 21 top-10 finishes in just 33 races, a feat they matched in 2016, and won three pole positions. Busch was a surprise outside contender to make the Final Four at Homestead.
But ever since a win at Pocono, in June of 2016, this duo has been laying the groundwork for driver/crew chief divorce. Busch has just six top-five finishes in the 43 races since and only 23 laps led. He ended last year as an afterthought for the title, making the final eight that time through racing luck rather than raw speed.
2017 has been even worse. Busch has just two top-five finishes, the same total as Paul Menard and Aric Almirola, despite winning the 500. He’s led just six laps, fewer than teammate Danica Patrick, and posted an average finish of 17.4, well below that of other teammates Kevin Harvick (11.2) and Clint Bowyer (13.1). It’s also nearly three positions lower than the number Busch put up (14.7) when he was rebuilding with Furniture Row Racing in 2013.
Certainly, Busch has a playoff spot secured and been well-liked by sponsor Monster Energy. But that consistent downturn combined with his age (39) could be two concerns registering within SHR. Keep in mind the four-car team has four drivers age 35 or older in a sport that’s getting markedly younger. Rivals Joe Gibbs Racing (Erik Jones) and Hendrick Motorsports (Alex Bowman) have joined the youth movement while Team Penske is on the rise at Ford with one Ryan Blaney.
At some point, SHR is going to join them. The question is whether this slip is enough to make Busch expendable when Patrick could also be on her way out.
Did You Notice? … The sport doesn’t really have a road course specialist that stands out? Back in the day, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace dominated the right-turn races. At one point, those drivers combined to sweep Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International in both 1989 and 1990.
Next up were Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Martin won three straight at the Glen, from 1993-1995 before the Gordon-Stewart combo rose to prominence. Combined, they won 17 times on the road courses and even entered their twilight years of competition as a virtual guaranteed top-five finish. Heck, Stewart won his final ever Cup race on a road course in June 2016 at Sonoma.
But now? Who’s the favorite on road courses is very much unclear. Kyle Busch is the only driver with multiple victories at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen. But the last time he was victorious, at either track was back in 2015. The last nine races at Sonoma have produced nine different winners; that streak at Watkins Glen stands at five.
On those lists include names like Marcos Ambrose (now retired), AJ Allmendinger (lone career Cup win), and Kasey Kahne (Sonoma, 2009). Not names you think of normally these days, right? And while the ‘Dinger has a history of being strong on road courses he’s more of a boom-or-bust guy. Denny Hamlin? He was great last year, earning a 1.5 average finish but had never won a right-turn race in Cup before that.
The bottom line is there’s no real driver with an edge. That unpredictability, now looming larger than ever is one of many reasons these events have become fan favorites.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- So NASCAR veterans can run seven XFINITY Series races next year instead of 10. Kyle Busch can run five Camping World Truck Series races next year instead of seven. Big whoop. While these rules have helped, the change makes little difference for young stars like Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon who can come over and run as many races as they want. For those drivers with less than five years of Cup experience, about 25-35 percent of the starting grid each week the changes don’t even apply to them.
Not enough can be said about Ryan Preece’s upset win at Iowa Speedway Saturday. Our S.D. Grady has a great piece in our Newsletter about him getting a second chance. You wonder, with Preece combining with Sam Hornish Jr.’s victory last year in top-tier equipment whether we’re going to see a trend develop. Would you rather run full-time, with a 25th-place car every week or put all your eggs in one basket for 2-3 XFINITY starts? While Hornish never got a full-time ride out of his win (Preece is unlikely to do so as well) both men seem much happier. And they have a trophy on their mantle which is a hell of a lot more than 80 percent of the XFINITY field (including points leader Elliott Sadler) can say right now.
- In the wake of the Gray Gaulding story yesterday, I think it’s notable no unchartered teams are running this weekend at Watkins Glen. That was one of the untold footnotes of looking into that dispute, drivers and team owners explaining just how difficult it is to run an “open” program. The difference in purse money under the franchise system means at a small-market track like the Glen it becomes unprofitable for you to compete unless you get exceptional sponsorship. At least at places like Indianapolis (where we saw 40 cars) the purse makes the potential payoff strong enough to bring an open team to the track.
The move was always done to pump up the charter program. But is the sport risking scaring away new ownership in the process? And why put together an economic system where a team can’t come to the track on a one-race deal and at least leave breaking even?
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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