NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings, No. 5: Kyle Busch

“Rowdy,” “Wild Thing,” “Candyman.” Whatever name you choose to call him, there is no denying how unquestionably good of a racer Kyle Busch is.

He’s accomplished so much in his NASCAR career that it’s hard to pick exactly where to start from. His 2015 and 2019 championship seasons are years that he’ll keep in his memory bank forever. But in the case of the 2020 season, it’s a season that he’d rather forget.

However, the two-time champion has overcome obstacles worse than this. 2021 is expected to be a year of redemption for Busch and the No. 18 team, when they hope to show the competition what they’re made of once again.

A Look Back

Busch suffered a heartbreaking runner-up finish in the 2019 Daytona 500 to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. But that didn’t stop his determination to put together a winning season. And boy, did he ever. He scored five wins, 17 top fives and 27 top 10s, capping it all off by winning the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to become a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. It silenced a lot of doubters, as it was his first championship with him being able to start all 36 events on the schedule. He missed 11 races when he won his 2015 title.

So, 2020 would surely be the year that Busch continues his stride and be in contention to win back-to-back championships, right? Well, not really. He blew an engine in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 34th. He recovered to win the pole at his hometown track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following week. But the rest of the regular season was full of inconsistent results and bygone executions on good performances.

He still advanced his way into the playoffs, but a crash at Talladega Superspeedway and a dismal 30th-place showing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL eliminated Busch after the second round. And to make matters worse, time was running out for him to just win a race, something he had done at least once a year in each of the previous 15 seasons.

The Cup Series raced into Texas Motor Speedway, but only completed 56 laps before rain pushed the remainder of the race to Wednesday evening. Busch and his team, however, kept a level head through it all. He led 90 laps and held off JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. to finally bring home his first and only win of the 2020 season, keeping Busch’s streak of consecutive winning seasons alive.

Promising Venues

As a natural wave cycle has its crests and troughs, Busch is on a similar cycle — the crest being his 2019 championship and the trough, his near-winless 2020 season. Which means by the rules of nature, Busch should ride the wave back up to its crest again in 2021. But it will take him improving on a few areas for this to be possible.

Busch has the potential to win at every track he goes to. At one point, he had won at every track on the Cup schedule before more were added. But in order to bring back those winning ways, he needs to find himself at the front more often than last year.

The 2020 season saw Busch lead a total of 516 laps, considerably down from the 1,582 laps he led in 2019. It is also the third-lowest total of laps he’s led in a season (362 in 2005, 453 in 2014). Being the race leader gives a driver and team more control of the race than any other position. If they want wins to come more regularly, the No. 18 team should bust out their old playbooks and experiment with bolder strategies to give Busch the lead in a more abundant manner.

Another avenue that Busch can improve on will be building up streaks of positive finishes. During 2020, his longest streak of top-10 finishes was only four, during the September stretch between Darlington Raceway and Las Vegas. Not scoring enough stage points and playoff points was a major factor in Busch being knocked out of the playoffs so early. By building up a higher point total and finishing in the top five and top 10 more often, he can avoid being in a similar situation when the 2021 playoffs begin.

2021 Scenarios

Not much will change for Busch, as 2021 will mark his 14th consecutive season driving the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch, however, will have a new teammate in Christopher Bell, who is migrating over to the No. 20 Toyota after he spent his rookie year driving for the now-defunct Leavine Family Racing.

Fortunately, the pair has a positive history together. Driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, Bell scored seven career wins, along with the 2017 championship. Now that Bell is moving over to JGR, we will have the opportunity to see what kind of connection he and Busch will make as teammates, in contrast to their previous relationship as a driver and owner.

For Busch, even after a 2020 season that was bad by his standards, he has to be considered a championship favorite and almost a lock for the Championship 4. Anything less will be a disappointment.

Outlook

Even though Busch was able to find victory lane in the nick of time and score an eighth-place points finish, the best thing he can do is leave 2020 behind and have a fresh focus on what 2021 has in store. Plus, he’s only 35 years old and is bound to have many winning seasons ahead of him. For the competition and for all the fans who loathe him, this spells bad news.

Busch’s 10% winning percentage in the Cup Series never came by playing nice. You can expect him to be a little less friendly on the track and return to his aggressive old self again. His rough and gritty driving style is a defining factor in the amount of success he’s had throughout his stellar career. It’s just a part of who he is. It’s what his team and his fans depend on. Why change it up?

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Jo

I have to disagree with the author’s comment that “not much will change for Busch” in 2021. How about the change in crew chiefs, from his alliance with Adam Stevens, with whom he won 28 races and 2 Championships, to Ben Beshore? I would call that a MAJOR change. How quickly the two adapt to each other will go far in determining Rowdy’s success in 2021.

Jo

I appreciate that you responded. Whenever in doubt, consult a driver’s fan!

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