Kyle Busch is proof that sure things and safe assumptions are a fool's errand in NASCAR. It was Busch who spent 2020 as the defending champion and won just a single race. And it'll be Busch who heads into this season without longtime crew chief Adam Stevens — the respected team leader of Busch's No. 18 outfit that rolled up 28 wins and two series championships in the last six years.
"It's just one of them off years," Busch said following a particularly disappointing finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway's Roval last fall. "It's a terrible year for me. But as other sports greats would say there's probably a lot of drivers that would like to have the year we are having. It's just frustrating to know how good we are, what we are capable of, being champions from last year, and to come out here and not be able to succeed."
Now, it'll be new crew chief Ben Beshore guiding Busch at the green flag of the Daytona 500 and shouldering the expectations that inevitably come when a generational talent holds the wheel at a premier organization. One win and a second-round exit from the Cup playoffs aren't going to be enough for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 this season.
It was exactly that stat line in 2020 that led to the end of the Busch-Stevens partnership after last season. JGR officials reassigned Stevens as the crew chief on Christopher Bell's No. 20 Toyota as part of the team's offseason leadership shuffle.
Beshore is a Cup newbie in the crew chief ranks, but he's not new to Busch's team. He spent several seasons as the lead engineer on the No. 18 before moving to a crew chief role in the Xfinity Series in 2019. Last year, he guided Harrison Burton's rookie season in the Xfinity ranks, where the pairing piled up four wins and advanced to the third round of the Xfinity playoffs. It was enough to earn Burton Rookie of the Year honors and, in turn, Beshore a promotion.
Officially, Busch's next start with Beshore on the pit box will be Busch's fourth working with the Pennsylvania native. Beshore led Busch's No. 18 Cup team for three races in 2017 after Stevens was suspended for four events when an improperly attached wheel came loose following a pit stop at Dover. Beshore also scored four wins with Busch in the Xfinity Series in 2019.
Busch and Beshore will be relying on anything and everything to fix what kept the No. 18 from meeting expectations. Busch lost speed in multiple ways from the 2019 title season. He led 1,000-plus fewer laps, his average position dropped from 9.0 to 12.2 and the rank of his total fastest laps dropped from first to seventh.
Another part of what ailed the Busch team in 2020, according to Stevens, was the drastic pandemic-forced shift to racing without practice and qualifying.
"That was a big part of our program, getting an intimate understanding of the car through practice," said Stevens in October following Busch's lone 2020 win at Texas Motor Speedway. "I'm not saying it's not a big part of everybody's program, but that was certainly a leg on our stool, and that was taken away from us. We probably didn't do the best job adjusting to that right off the bat, and on top of that, I think our program was a little behind to start the year."
That win was particularly important to Busch as it moved his current streak of winning at least one Cup race a year to 16 straight seasons — two behind Richard Petty's record of 18. Can Busch, 35, extend that streak and bounce back into title contention? Don't count him out. Remember that the Busch-Stevens combo won in their first season together (2015), and Busch is the only active driver with multiple Cup titles.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 7/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)