Thursday, June 1, 2023

Déjà Vu: Kyle Busch’s Roller Coaster Start to 2021 Continues

He’s been here before, and the ending isn’t as pretty. Kyle Busch’s start to the 2021 season has been anything but peak for a winning driver of his caliber.

The two-time champion was able to bring his No. 18 STANLEY Tools Camry home in the 25th position in Sunday’s Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway. After an up-and-down day, which included contact with Ross Chastain and pit road penalty, he was the worst finishing Joe Gibbs Racing driver of the four. Martin Truex Jr. got his first win of the season, Denny Hamlin finished third in his newly sponsored OfferPad Camry, and Christopher Bell came home in ninth.

“It was a long day with our STANLEY Camry,” Busch said in a media release. “Ben (Beshore, crew chief) and the guys made a lot of changes the first half of the race, but having the pit road penalty there put us back in traffic and we just couldn’t quite dig out of the hole all day. We were in the lucky dog position a few times, but the cautions didn’t fall at the right time. We’ll get back to work and hope to have a better finish at Atlanta.”

The finish at Phoenix continues the roller-coaster season that Busch is experiencing.

Busch, who rolled off seventh on Sunday, was expected to deliver a strong day for the team, continuing a streak of top-ten finishes from Homestead and Las Vegas. Rightfully so, the team seemed to be on their way to that goal after a sixth-place finish at the end of Stage one.

In stage two, Busch came down pit road for a green-flag pit stop, which later ended up costing him dearly. The team had an uncontrolled tire, forcing Busch to make a pass-through penalty under green. With 30 laps to go in the stage, Busch was scored in 29th, one lap down, foreshadowing where he would spend the rest of his day.

He continued to fight an ill-handling race car, even brushing the wall and losing valuable spots in the process.

Then came Lap 283, when Busch and Chastain made contact coming to the start/finish line. The spin sent Busch spinning towards the inside wall. Busch was audibly upset over the radio following the spin.

His spin with Chastain marks his fifth recorded incident of 2021, tying him with fellow Toyota driver Bubba Wallace and rookie Chase Briscoe, the most on the Incident Tracker. An “incident” on the tracker is recorded when a driver spins, is involved in an accident that requires pit road repair, or if one driver is involved in another on-track incident thanks to another competitor.

In an almost deja vu effect, Busch’s performance after the first five races of 2020 are drawing similarities to this year. After five races last season, Busch was sitting 14th in the points with two top-three finishes, and two finishes worse than 20th. This year, while only finishing in the top-three once, Rowdy has two finishes outside the top-20, coming at the Daytona road course, and Phoenix on Sunday. He is now scored 15th in the point standings. If you go back one year to his championship season in 2019, Busch didn’t finish worse than sixth in the first five races of the season, with two wins coming at Phoenix and Fontana.

Keep in mind, Busch is working with a new crew chief this season in Ben Beshore after a crew chief shuffle over at JGR. Busch and former crew chief Adam Stevens were not seeing eye-to-eye in the offseason, thus leading to the split.

Coy Gibbs, Vice Chairman and COO of the organization, chimed in a media availability about Busch’s 2021 start.

“I think any time you make changes, there’s going to be some growing pains,” Gibbs said. “They had worked together before in the past, so I think that’s going to limit a lot of them. I think today it was the pit stop, the loose wheel got them a lap down, never got it back. He was getting better as the race went on. We never really got to see what he had. Obviously, it’s a frustrating day for us and a frustrating day for him. We want all our guys in the top four, for sure.

The Las Vegas native will put Phoenix behind him and head to Atlanta, a track that, statistically speaking, is rather mid-range for him. Only two wins in his 22 starts on the Cup side, he only has six top-five finishes, and nine top-ten finishes at the 1.5-mile track. Three of those top-ten finishes have come in the last three starts, including a second place in June of 2020, a sixth place in February 2019, and a seventh-place finish in February of 2018 after starting from pole.

Fans can tune into the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 from Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 21st at 3:00 PM EST on FOX and the FOX Sports app.

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