If you ask Kyle Busch what grade he thinks he earned last season, he gives himself a pretty dismal report card.
“Anytime you go into a season with Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing, this 18, M&M’s team, myself, you expect to be Championship 4 — in contention, eligible. Anything other than that is a failure,” Busch said last fall. “[So I] guess you get an F.”
Of course, Busch is grading on a curve. He’s the winningest active NASCAR Cup Series driver (59 so far) and the holder of two Cup championships. Last year, Busch picked up just two wins (one at Kansas and one at Pocono). His title chances ended for good when a second-place finish in the third-round finale at Martinsville Speedway wasn’t enough to overcome a poor finish during the second race at Kansas.
It was a fitting end for a season that never saw Busch hit the sustained high points that have long been traits of his time in NASCAR. His average finish (12.8) was just one spot better than his single-win 2020 campaign and his second worst since 2014. Busch led just 334 laps — the fewest in any of his full-time seasons at the Cup level.
“[Laps led] shows you how fast your stuff is when you’re able to get out front and you’re able to lead laps,” Busch says. “And so that’s definitely one of if not the biggest issue that we had as a group — just not being able to find the lead and hold the lead. I mean, I restarted as the leader probably a handful of times on the season, and I lost the lead within three laps on every one of them, except Kansas.”
The result is an offseason of searching, thinking and retooling. Again.
A year ago, that process led former crew chief Adam Stevens to abruptly leave Busch’s No. 18 team in favor of assuming the same role on Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota. The parting surprised Busch.
“We’ll look at every single aspect of it, try to analyze it,” owner Joe Gibbs said last fall as Busch’s teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. prepared for their chances at a championship. “We did last year. We need to do a better job of giving Kyle what it takes in a car. Then, of course, he has to look at himself. He tries to analyze. I know Kyle does that. He gets frustrated. He’s extremely competitive. But I know that he does a good job of what he can do to do better next year.”
In place of Stevens last season came crew chief Ben Beshore — elevated to his first full-time role as a crew chief in the Cup Series after working with many drivers in the JGR Xfinity Series operation.
Beshore is back to lead the No. 18 again this season as the Next Gen car makes its debut. The new car design is a wild card for every driver, but Busch’s stats from a year ago will sharpen Beshore’s focus. To get back to championship form, Busch will need to find a way to net more playoff points from race and stage wins. Last year, his 23 total playoff points ranked a reputable fifth in the series. Still, he trailed eventual champion Kyle Larson’s 65-point haul by an alarming gap.
Busch, like every driver, enters this season in a wait-and-see mode as he tries to gauge how he and his team will adapt to the new car. But he’s hopeful that the vehicle, at least in its early races, will continue to be a rugged machine to handle, as it has been during offseason oval testing.
“I would hope to think that something that will benefit myself and the better drivers early on [is] the ability to drive the ill-handling stuff more and deal with more on that front until it gets scienced out, figured out,” says Busch. “Then the cars will start to drive good, and it’ll be harder yet.”