How appropriate for Kyle Busch this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race is the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. As Busch looks to conquer the Tricky Triangle of Pocono Raceway once again, the biggest story in the sport this week is Busch simply trying to find another sponsor – and potentially team – who appreciates him.
M&M Mars is in the process of finishing up their final year of sponsoring Busch’s No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Both team and driver won at this racetrack last year and are hoping to go back-to-back to celebrate a 15-year partnership, an eternity within a racing world where drivers tend to bounce from team to team.
Can Busch and JGR make it to year 16 without M&M’s alongside them?
The answer seems increasingly unclear as the weeks have gone by. Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson admitted this week talks are “in a bad place” as Busch admitted he’s been “talking to other teams.” At the very least, both sides are actively exploring divorce and what going their separate ways could mean.
That brings us back to Busch and what he brings to the table. At 37 years old, he’s the only active NASCAR driver with two or more Cup championships. His 60 Cup victories are ninth all-time and also the most of any active driver. Busch’s Camping World Truck Series team is a championship contender, an added bonus for sponsors where Busch can win races while developing future talent for a manufacturer (Toyota).
That resume has Busch believing, understandably, he should be one of the highest-paid drivers inside the sport. Problem is, he’s entering a tough economic environment and a rigid year when it comes to NASCAR free agency. The sport’s other top teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske) have drivers signed to long-term deals through at least 2023. Stewart-Haas Racing already has one car (Cole Custer) that’s mostly self-funded through Haas Automation.
SHR would be the most likely landing spot with Aric Almirola supposedly retiring. Beyond that? Any other suitor would be a step down in terms of equipment, from Petty GMS Motorsports’ open seat to taking over the second Kaulig Racing Chevrolet full-time.
Left unsaid is whether Busch’s current value matches his past performance. Sixth in Cup points, his lone victory this year is a Bristol Dirt Race where the two drivers in front of him crashed on the final turn of the final lap. Busch’s laps led in Cup the last three years (1,249) still fall short of the 1,582 he had in 2019, the last year he won the championship.
A victory at Pocono, where Busch won on fuel mileage last summer, would do wonders in helping change that narrative at the right time. He’s won four of the last nine races here and should benefit from a NextGen chassis that will put more in the driver’s hands at this triangular-shaped track.
Speaking of, expect shifting to be a major story at a Pocono triangle where you need to execute passes off three uniquely shaped turns. Everyone compromises on handling here, to some degree, while focusing on maximizing their acceleration off turn 3 and down a Long Pond straightaway where cars often fan out four or five-wide on restarts.
Can Busch find a way to push forward and win one for his outgoing primary sponsor? Either way, it’s an open audition for his future as NASCAR Silly Season heats up along with the summertime push for the playoffs.
M&M's Fan Appreciation 400
Date: Sunday, July 24
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Pocono Raceway (Long Pond, Pa.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Christopher Bell
Bell shot out of a cannon during the final stage at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, passing Chase Elliott with 42 laps to go to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race on an oval. Bell’s now won four times in his last six NHMS starts, building on a 3-for-3 mark he established down in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
The 14th winner in 20 Cup races this season, Bell’s victory means the final two spots in the current playoff field are occupied by non-winners Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. Those drivers rank third in fourth in points, meaning everyone else on the outside looking in will almost certainly need a win to make the field (even 2014 Cup champ Kevin Harvick).
Who's at the Back: Alex Bowman
Bowman is in freefall within a Hendrick Motorsports program that’s looking like title contenders elsewhere. Bowman has as many DNFs in the last three weeks (three) as Chase Elliott has wins this season while plummeting to 11th in the standings. Since winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, Bowman has only led a race once, for two laps while posting just two additional top-5 finishes.
NASCAR is returning to the Chicago market next year in an unprecedented way: holding a street course race throughout the heart of the Windy City. The deal, announced this week, would be the first such event in the sport’s modern era as executives look to shake up the 2023 schedule. The proposed 12-turn, 2.2-mile course will include Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, hosting both an IMSA and NASCAR weekend during the July 4 weekend previously held by Road America.
Yet another NASCAR Cup Series team has lost their crew chief and part of their pit crew to a lost wheel. This time, it’s rookie Austin Cindric paying the price after his wheel came off following a stage two pit stop at NHMS. Crew chief Jeremy Bullins, jackman Patrick Gray and front tire changer Curtis Thompson will all find themselves on the bench during the next four weeks.
A former NASCAR Cup Series full-timer has found a home in the Camping World Truck Series. Matt DiBenedetto confirmed at Pocono he’ll return with the Rackley W.A.R. No. 25 Truck team in 2023 despite a disappointing year (he's 13th in points without a top-5 finish). Matty D, 30, moved to trucks after losing his ride with the Wood Brothers following the 2021 season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps completed in the last two races (out of a possible 561) by Cup driver B.J. McLeod. McLeod’s underfunded No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports team has wrecked out in back-to-back weeks.
Laps led this season by Martin Truex, Jr., including a race-high 172 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Truex has the fourth-most laps led of any Cup driver this season yet remains winless on the year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Given the first portion of this preview was all about Kyle Busch, it’s hard to argue against him, right? In his last 11 starts, Busch has wrecked out at Pocono just once, leading laps in 10 of those events while posting four wins and 10 top-10 finishes. It’s hard to find a driver with more consistency here, virtually guaranteed to come with position differential points and fastest-lap bonuses.
Pocono is not one of Chase Elliott’s better tracks historically. Without a lap led at the track since 2019, Elliott has just three top-5 finishes in 12 starts and no result higher than fourth. And that’s… precisely why he’s the perfect pick this week. Elliott might be less expensive based on that history but a NextGen chassis resets the landscape at a time the No. 9 team is red hot. When a team runs first, second, first and second you don’t bet against them in my book until they cool off.
Just once in 42 career starts has Kevin Harvick visited victory lane at Pocono. But don’t let that track record deter you; that win came in the summer of 2020, part of a five-race stretch that includes two other top-5 finishes and 90 laps led. Harvick now knows he needs to win in order to make the postseason, creating more of a boom-or-bust mentality with the No. 4 bunch. I think this weekend, they go boom.
Tyler Reddick has a challenge on his hands while Richard Childress Racing adjusts to his lame duck status at the No. 8 Chevrolet. Can Pocono be the place they refocus on the present? Reddick posted an impressive 10.0 average finish in the doubleheader held at this track last summer, a dramatic improvement from his 32.5 average finish the previous year.
I’m thinking it’s time to join the Bubba Wallace bandwagon. Third at NHMS last week, it was his best finish since the Daytona 500 as the No. 23 team starts buckling down and aiming high for a win to make the playoffs. Pocono was one of their better tracks last year, Wallace flashing top-10 speed before some fuel mileage strategy left him crossing the line in fifth place. Can they recapture the magic?
It’s 18 career starts, no top-10 finishes at Pocono for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. So why will Sunday be different? He’s quietly finished 17th or better in three of his four starts since switching to the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. It’s come with a negative position differential (-22 in those three events) but the price is just too good to pass up.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds list Kyle Busch as the favorite for Sunday’s race at +700. It’s a gaggle of drivers behind him at +800, all of whom have won a race this year already: Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.
Such a large group of drivers banded together up top means Pocono’s not a great place for longshots this week. Bubba Wallace is probably your best bet at +3000.
What I Think
I do believe Kyle Busch is going to come through, earning his second win of the year at Pocono while turning the storyline back to what he can accomplish at the right time.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.