Kyle Busch finished 0.681 seconds behind Martin Truex Jr. last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leaving Busch one position away from his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Truex and Busch, both driving Toyotas, may as well be teammates as they drive cars built and set up from the same shared specifications and notes thanks to an alliance between Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing and Truex’s Furniture Row Racing.
So how can Busch flip that result this Monster Energy Cup season? Where does the answer lie in a world in which your biggest competitor knows virtually every secret that you know?
“The biggest thing is, myself and Adam (Stevens, crew chief), and our team, we’ve gotta go back and look at the notes that we have from our stuff from the entire season,” Busch says. “We’ll look at what (Truex) was doing from the entire season, and kind of come up with what the differences were, and what was missing on our program to get us to that level.”
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One way Busch and the No. 18 team changed their approach in 2017 was to focus on maximizing their qualifying efforts in NASCAR’s multi-round system. Busch ended up scoring a series- and career-high eight poles to blow past his previous single-season career mark of three. The purpose, Busch says, had to do with maximizing points scored in NASCAR’s first season of stage racing.
“Everybody wants to bring cars to the race track that are ready to go, right off the truck, to put out fast laps and qualify well,” Busch says. “But I think we put a better emphasis on that, and obviously our cars being fast gave us that opportunity to do that.”
Busch ended the season with 14 stage wins and 54 stage top-10 finishes despite dealing with a new Toyota Camry design that JGR didn’t get quite right until halfway through 2017. “With us having a better understanding of the car, I think we’ll be ready to go a lot sooner this year,” Busch says.
Busch expects clashes with Brad Keselowski to continue — “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy,” Busch said last season — and he has now added Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, to his catalog of unfriendly competitors. A fight broke out between the two at Las Vegas, and Busch blamed Logano for holding him up late in the championship finale. Busch says Logano was mad about contact at Martinsville in October. “(Logano) sent me a mean text after (Martinsville) and was pretty upset that I got into him and cut his tire,” Busch says. “We didn’t think that there was gonna be an issue in the remaining races, but obviously there was at Homestead. So, he’s now on that list of guys that you just don’t like, and we’ll continue to battle through that unfortunate relationship with Penske Racing drivers.”
There will be some change around Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing thanks to the offseason departure of Matt Kenseth. Filling the seat of Kenseth’s No. 20 is Erik Jones — a driver Busch hand-picked to bring through NASCAR’s ranks on his self-owned team — driving his second full-time Cup season.
“It does leave a little bit of a void,” Busch says of Kenseth’s exit. “I certainly didn’t want to see Matt leave and go on, or do anything different. He’s been a tremendous teammate, and he’s been a huge part of our organization for the last five, six years.”
But as a driver who made his full-time Cup debut as a 20-year-old, Busch understands the value Jones brings and how it reflects the current landscape of young drivers replacing expensive veterans. “I think that that’s just the wave of the future, and for us to get started with Erik now is better than a few years down the road,” Busch says.