Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Kyle Busch’s Tale of Three Seasons

If you were watching Saturday (Sept. 18) night’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway and wondering what was wrong with Kyle Busch, you were not alone. Busch was surprisingly absent from the battle for the lead at one of his best tracks. The No. 8 car got the most screen time when Busch was fighting to stay on the lead lap. He was not successful in that endeavor, ending the evening two laps down in 20th place. It was a disappointing result for Busch at a track that used to be his playground. However, he did at least score enough points to advance to the Round of 12.

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Busch is approaching the end of his first season with Richard Childress Racing, but he and the No. 8 team are still difficult to predict week-to-week. During his 15-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing, you could typically pencil Busch in for at least a top 10 at Bristol as long as he avoided getting in a wreck. Yet the No. 8 team never found its footing in Thunder Valley this year, continuing a problematic trend for Busch over the last 10 races.

Since the 20th race of the year, where he crashed out early at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Busch has been trending in the wrong direction. He was falling down the points standings prior to the beginning of the playoffs and has not done anything to stop the bleeding since the postseason began. It’s a surprising reversal for Busch, who was building a case to be a championship contender early in the year.

Busch’s 2023 actually feels like parts of three different seasons mashed together into one. The first part is the first 10 races, events where Busch often flashed winning speed but did not always get the finishes to show for it. He won two races during this period, one at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and one at Talladega Superspeedway. On other occasions, Busch had good runs spoiled by late race issues. The two best examples are the Daytona 500, where he got collected in the last lap melee, and the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, where suspension issues in the closing laps sent Busch to the garage.

The second part of Busch’s season, races 11-19, is his best run so far. His only win during this period was at World Wide Technology Raceway, but he was far more consistent than early in the year. On the strength of seven consecutive top 10s, including back-to-back fifth places at the Chicago street course and Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch climbed to third in points. He and RCR looked like they had struck gold.

But the 10 races since then, the third part of Busch’s year, suggest that it may have been fool’s gold after all. In the last seven races of the regular season, he finished 36th or worse three times and only scored two top 10s. As quickly as Busch ascended the points standings, he fell hard, all the way out of the top 10. A good run at Daytona International Speedway last month allowed him to end the regular season ninth in overall points and pick up two additional playoff points. Still, that’s a far cry from the eight playoff points Busch could have earned if he had held on to third. And while he soldiered through the Round of 16, the poor run at Bristol suggests that the No. 8 team has not snapped out of its funk.

Here is another breakdown of Busch’s 2023 season showing just how different its three phases have been.

RacesWinsTop FivesTop 10sAverage FinishLaps Led
1-1023512.250
11-1914710.1176
20-2901219.27

As you can see, it has really been the last 10 races that have hurt Busch’s stock as a title contender. He and RCR may not have found their groove early in the season, but a pair of wins still buoyed the No. 8 team. Now that the wins have stopped coming and the summer hot streak has cooled off, Busch and his team are performing at their worst when they need to be at their best.

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In order for Busch and RCR to win the championship, they have to hope that there is a fourth chapter to their 2023 season. It would not be a shock to see Busch turn things around. He is one of the best in the history of the elimination-style playoffs, winning two titles and appearing in the Championship 4 race every year from 2015-2019. However, forecasting the No. 8 team’s results circles back to the original problem. Busch has not always been fast this year at the tracks where he typically ran well with JGR. To advance any further in the postseason, RCR will have to be up for the challenge.

In that regard, there is reason for optimism. The No. 8 team won at Texas Motor Speedway last year with Tyler Reddick. Reddick was also competitive at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL all three years he drove for RCR. Busch has not raced at Texas or the ROVAL in Childress’ cars yet, but his recent record at Texas is strong, and he is coming off of back-to-back top fives at the ROVAL after an initial three disastrous races there.

The other track in the second round of the playoffs is Talladega, where Busch won earlier this year. Betting on good fortune at Talladega is usually a dangerous game, but the drafting tracks are the one place where the No. 8 team has had speed all year. Busch may be down, but he’s not out.

The No. 8 team’s struggles over the last 10 races have put them in a difficult position. Busch still has a path forward to the championship race thanks to the playoff points he earned early in the season. But there is no doubt that he is going through the kind of uneven first season that drivers often experience after they switch teams. Only time will tell if his current downward trend continues, or if he and his team can change the course of their season one more time.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Bill B

This is just the old debate, is it the car/team or driver, playing out in front of our eyes. Childress hasn’t really contended for a championship in decades, can putting a top 5 driver in the seat raise them to the next level?

Apparently not, because he hasn’t really been running up front. Maybe next year though, after they’ve had this year to get synched up and learn.

There is still a path for him to make it to the final four this year, but it’s not by dominating week in and week out. It’s by running smart and trying to rack up top 10s while others make mistakes beating their chests going for wins and trying to dominate every lap.

Echo

Yes, Kyle needs to play the bubba attrition game and childress needs to find someone who can set kyles car up for Kyle. He didn’t forget how to drive and the fire still makes him want to win every race. Childress needs to spy on Hamlins setups for his cars.

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