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Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s words lead to questions but better results could end any debate

When Austin Dillon pitched Kyle Busch on joining Richard Childress Racing ahead of the 2023 season, the message was simple.

“We’re survivors and we’re fighters at RCR,” Dillon said he told Busch. “ … When you’re a part of this organization, we’re going to fight together as long as you’re willing to fight with us.”

So, it was curious what Busch — just 18 months into his time at Richard Childress Racing — said last weekend at Iowa Speedway. When asked about social media buzz regarding the prospect of him returning to Joe Gibbs Racing, his home from 2008-22, Busch said:

“I would say anything’s possible, always. Certainly, if I was welcomed, I would go back. If Hendrick welcomed me back, I would go back, but right now I’m at RCR with my group of guys and the deal that I have right now in place, so we’re trying to work and build this program and make RCR great again.”

It’s easy to read between the lines of Busch’s comments and just as easy to read too much into what he said. That ambiguity, along with the struggles he’s had this year, leads to questions — questions that could be silenced with better results.

Busch did make clear at Iowa that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next year.

Yet, making such a comment about the potential of going back to Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, his home in Cup from the 2003 season finale to 2007, is something former driver Kevin Harvick said could prove disruptive.

“A message like that just opens Pandora’s box to letting all of us critique, criticize, speculate what that means,” said Harvick, who raced in Cup at Richard Childress Racing from 2001-13, on his Fox Sports podcast this week. ”I can see thinking that, but I don’t know why you would say that unless you were not happy with the deal that you had.

“Opening the door to a Joe Gibbs conversation or a Hendrick conversation, that is like a kick in the teeth to the guys and gals that are working on your car — to not be committed 100 percent in your answer to the team that you are driving for unless you are looking for a way out.”

Crew chief Randall Burnett said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Busch remains committed to the team, saying his driver “is a big part of this and a big part of the future of RCR. … I think we’re going to be in good shape with him for the next couple of years here at RCR and go forward from there.”

What is clear is that 30 years after winning its last Cup title, Richard Childress Racing isn’t on pace to end that drought.

Busch, a two-time Cup champion, is 31 points outside a playoff spot with nine races left in the regular season heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA).

This season already has seen Busch’s pit crew go through many changes. The car hasn’t been as good as last year. Busch says he continues to struggle to find what he needs with the Next Gen car.

It’s all led to a disappointing year. Busch is on pace to have the fewest top-five and top-10 finishes in any of his full-time Cup seasons. He also seeks a win to extend his NASCAR record streak of 19 consecutive seasons with at least one Cup victory.

“The truth of the matter is, the performance hasn’t been there,” NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton, who raced at RCR from late in 2004 through 2013, told Nate Ryan on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast. “And Richard’s not happy. Kyle’s not happy. No one. (RCR Executive Vice President) Andy Petree. No one is happy with the way they’ve run this year.

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“Kyle, in his not always subtle way … kind of lit the torch a little bit. Kevin would light the torch, too, when it he felt like it was beneficial.

“Now, look, when asked, Kyle said, ‘I’m here to make RCR great again,’ and (they asked), will you be back next year? And he said, yes. So, we can’t forget he said those things, too.

“I think he was kind of thinking out loud, which gets you in trouble around the media, but, at the same time, I think Kyle was also saying, Look, we got to get our stuff together.

It has taken Busch longer to get a victory in a season than this year. In 2020, he didn’t win until the 34th race of the season. In 2017, it wasn’t until the 21st race of the season that he won. All the other years since 2017, Busch won by the 11th race of that season.

He came .007 seconds away from winning the second race this year, finishing third to Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney at Atlanta in the closest 1-2-3 finish in Cup history. Even if had won, the challenges would have remained, but he would have been in a playoff spot and could at least be building toward a deep postseason run.

But if Busch doesn’t win in the next nine races, his bid to be a three-time Cup champion likely will have to wait until next year. Should another driver below him win and secure a playoff spot, that could move the cut line further from Busch.

Trying to win as he’s trying to figure out the car hasn’t been easy. While he won three times in his first season at Richard Childress Racing, those victories came early. He’s on a career-long 38-race winless drought. During that time, he has nearly as many finishes of 25th or worse (13) as he does top 10s (14).

“We have way less time now, right? I mean, ever since COVID. And look at my results,” Busch said last week at Iowa. “There’s just not enough practice for me to dissect and dive into the car. … I have a feel that I want to feel. When I feel that, I’m way faster than me just having to ride around in a car that feels like it just came off the truck.”

Syndication: The Des Moines Register

Syndication: The Des Moines Register

Good news, bad news for NASCAR Cup teams entering New Hampshire weekend

Team Penske looks to continue its hot streak this weekend.

At Darlington in May, he referred to that as his “new realm of confusion,” compared to past challenges.

“I think the last time we had this much confusion was when we had the high downforce package on the Cup cars – the old Cup car where you didn’t know if you wanted to be the downforce guy or the less drag guy at the different racetracks,” Busch said at Darlington of the package first used in 2019.

At Martinsville in April, Busch said: “Since we’ve gone to the new car, everything’s more similar. You don’t have your playbook and your tool set is way limited on what you can do in order to find that rear grip, and I have not been able to find that rear grip for here. I can probably be fast for 20 or 25 laps maybe, and then we start throwing the anchor out and the backup light comes on.”

That Busch and his team have yet to solve these matters, makes one wonder when Childress will celebrate another Cup title.

“To be the best, you want to race for a championship,” Childress told NBC Sports in February. “That’s my goal. That’s why I’m still here.”

2. Repave the way to go?

While it used to be that the first race at a repaved track often featured higher speeds, a narrow groove and limited passing, the recent repaves at North Wilkesboro, Sonoma and Iowa have shown that good racing can take place even after a track has been resurfaced — or partially resurfaced as was the case at Iowa Speedway.

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“Anytime we’ve heard repave here recently, it makes us all nervous and you’re right, the racing has been as good or arguably you could say better on a couple of these repaves,” Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Joey Logano, said in response to a question from NBC Sports.

While Logano led all but one of the 200 laps in winning the All-Star Race last month at North Wilkesboro Speedway, drivers had multiple lanes to run, something not everyone in the Cup garage was convinced would be possible ahead of the event.

“Now, the surface at Wilkesboro, the aggregate, the make-up of the asphalt they used there was definitely quite a bit different looking at it from what we’re used to,” Wolfe said. “It was much more coarse and the way they’re repaving them these days must be different because I remember going to that test and typically when you do a repave test in year’s past, it would take a day or two before the track would even begin to come in and have any type of grip, and North Wilkesboro had grip instantly.

“I think from run two of the test I don’t know that we really picked up speed from the track surface gaining grip other than just changes we made to our race car, so the grip is there instantaneously.”

With better racing at a short tracks and a road course that had been repaved, Wolfe also points to the Next Gen car and the larger tires as key factors.

“I think as you look at the groove getting wider now, I think these cars without all of the big side force in them, I think you can run on the outside of someone a lot better – the right side of them,” Wolfe said. “I think that’s something the drivers comment about a lot, where getting to the outside is much more doable with this car, and I think both Wilkesboro and Iowa have that progressive banking the best I understand, so I think that helps make that top groove work as well.

“It’s definitely encouraging and at this point it would be hard to say it couldn’t work at other tracks as well that are in need of a repave.”

Last week’s race at Iowa saw cars three wide at times and often two wide. While drivers had been fearful entering the race because of the partial repave, competitors left feeling that NASCAR should return there next year.

“I think it would be better if they repaved the reset of it,” Logano said after finishing sixth at Iowa. “Because at no point does the track have more than two-and-a-half lanes, three lanes. They’ll never be wider the way it is. Ever. Ever.

“So I would probably just do the rest. You don’t have to do the whole race track. You can keep the straightaways the way they are.”

3. Flying high

Justin Haley hopes to have his pilot’s license in the coming weeks. He was scheduled to take the written test this week and then will have to take an oral examine and a flight test.

The Rick Ware Racing driver said he’s always wanted to be a pilot, following his father, who is a pilot. Haley seeks to be certified as a private pilot with a single-engine plane.

“It’s really hard to book an examiner for that portion of it,” Haley said. “That’s kind of the process I’m going through now, trying to find an examiner and find somebody to check me off if I do everything right. Hopefully have it by the summer break (in July).”

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On the track, Haley has helped Rick Ware Racing reach new heights. Haley has three finishes of 13th or better in the last five races. That includes a pair of ninth-place finishes. Those results were at Darlington and World Wide Technology Raceway, marking the first time a Rick Ware Racing car had scored a top-10 at a non-drafting track.

One of the advantages of finishing better is it improves the driver’s metric, which determines the qualifying order. The later a driver can go the better in qualifying.

Earlier in the season when Haley had poor finishes, the metric did not favor him and his starting spot showed. At Richmond, he was the first driver to qualify and started 36th. At Texas, he was the fourth driver to qualify and started 32nd. At Dover, he was the second driver to qualify and started 36th.

“The cars that run good get the advantage and it just cycles,” he said. “If you get into a bad run, it just really hurts you for the next week and it snowballs and snowballs and snowballs.”

With his stronger runs recently, Haley is starting the enjoy the benefits of a better spot in the qualifying lineup.

4. Special debut

Three-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Justin Bonsignore will make his Xfinity Series debut Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 36-year-old from Holtsville, New York, is scheduled for double duty Saturday. He’ll run the Xfinity race and then compete in the modified race afterward. He will become the oldest driver of the 27 who have made their Xfinity debut with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Bonsignore, in his 15th full-time season on the modified tour, said this is his only Xfinity start planned at this time.

“I’ve always had goals of making it to the national series, especially when I got started on the modified tour but just never had the sponsorship behind us and didn’t have the self-motivation, really, to pursue it, chasing sponsors and everything that goes with it,” Bonsignore said in response to a question from NBC Sports.

This process started when he got to test an ARCA car at Daytona and competed in that series’ season opener there. He started sixth and finished 32nd after a mechanical failure. He began pursuing sponsorship. He also started calling teams, beginning with JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. JRM didn’t have any openings but Joe Gibbs Racing had something for New Hampshire if he could put together the funding.

“We’ve had talks of doing more,” Bonsignore said of discussions with JGR. “Obviously, it will depend on sponsorship and funding, but we want to see how this whole weekend goes first, see how much we enjoy it, how much exposure we get, see how it works for our partners and if (JGR) has anything available for the rest of the year.”

5. Numbers to know

0 — Combined wins this season by former champions Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

6 — Combined wins at New Hampshire by former champions Kyle Busch (3), Joey Logano (2) and Martin Truex Jr. (1).

10 — Different winners this season, leaving six playoff spots left with nine races to go in the regular season.

12 — Consecutive races at New Hampshire that a Joe Gibbs Racing Cup car has either finished first or second.

17 — Race winless drought for Hendrick Motorsports at New Hampshire. Hendrick last won a Cup race there in July 2012 with Kasey Kahne.

22 — Laps Kyle Larson has led in his Cup career at New Hampshire. He’s led fewer laps at only the Indianapolis oval (10 laps) and World Wide Technology Raceway (12).

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