NASCAR: Kyle Busch poised for a bounce-back year in 2021?

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

After a disappointing NASCAR Cup Series season in 2020, is two-time champion Kyle Busch poised for a bounce-back campaign in 2021?

Kyle Busch knows that his championship-winning performance at Homestead-Miami Speedway to cap off the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season was effectively a band-aid.

When he took the checkered flag in mid-November two seasons ago, it had been five and a half months since he last visited victory lane. Things weren’t going all that well for the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team, but what can you really complain about when you’re hoisting your second championship trophy in five years?

Then the 2020 season hit, and the masked struggles the team felt throughout much of the 2019 season were unmasked for all to see.

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Busch was eliminated in the round of 12 for the first time since 2014, marking the earliest playoff elimination for a reigning champion. For the first time as a former champion, he did not qualify for the Championship 4, ending a five-year streak of appearances in the winner-take-all championship round.

It took him until the 34th race on the 36-race schedule to find victory lane, and he did it in what turned out to be a fuel mileage race. This time around, a late win couldn’t mask the team’s struggles. The first championship ineligible driver to win a playoff race since 2017, he finished in a seventh place tie in the championship standings, also his worst since 2014.

Is Busch poised for a bounce-back season in 2021?

After six years with crew chief Adam Stevens, Busch is set to have Ben Beshore atop the pit box this season, as Stevens has moved to the #20 team with first-year Joe Gibbs Racing drive Christopher Bell.

In fact, Busch joked that he felt that he had been fired by the #18 team and rehired by the #20 team, given the nature of some of the changes within the Joe Gibbs Racing stable over the three-month offseason.

We asked Busch a few questions about the upcoming 2021 season — specifically, how he aims to make it a lot different than his disappointing 2020 season.

He knows that the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway is a wild card. Whether he wins that race or crashes and finishes in 40th place, it will by no means be an indication of the team’s progress — or lack thereof.

But he isn’t ready to commit to when he wants to see that progress from last year.

"“You’re right, it’s always a wild card at Daytona. I don’t know if this is the year, but we’ll find out soon. I don’t want to start looking at progress before the seasons starts, but I know we want to start off well in the Daytona 500 and then we’ll take it week by week, race by race. Right now we’re looking at the Daytona 500, this is the last trophy on my checklist that we really need.”"

He places quite a bit of value on the fact that he has worked with Beshore before, both in the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series, ahead of his first season with him as the full-time crew chief of the #18 team.

"“It definitely does present new challenges but helps we are familiar with each other. Working with Ben is going to be cool. Ben and I worked together when he was the engineer on my car the first four years Adam was my Cup crew chief. We won the championship in 2015 and we were close in 2017 and we were there again with an opportunity to win it again in 2018 and it just didn’t happen.“Ben went on to the Xfinity side and he and I worked together over there and won five out of seven races, blew an engine in the sixth race while leading and had a suspension failure while leading in the seventh race, so we could have gone seven for seven that year. I feel like he’s got a good knack for the car and does and good job and I’m looking forward to being able to have the opportunity to work with him again, but as a crew chief on the Cup side this time.”"

Busch detailed some of the races he is looking forward to this year, especially given all of the schedule changes that have taken place — and one he isn’t exactly looking forward to.

"“You definitely want to get some wins at the places we have raced at and check those boxes just we have on the other tracks that were already on the schedule. I always look forward to the road courses, COTA should be a fun one I know a lot of us haven’t been there, run on there, seen that place.“I’m also looking forward to Road of America, but again I’ve never been there. Some of the Xfinity guys who have come through recently have.“Bristol dirt will also be interesting. I just don’t know that our big, heavy stock cars are cut out and made for the dirt profile. That that’s my opinion, but the tire also is not conducive to the dirt surface very well. And so to me, from talking to some of the other drivers that have run the Eldora truck race the last few years, you’re pretty much holding on the whole time, praying you’re not going to spin out or crash. And that, to me doesn’t sound like a very fun time, although it is entertaining to watch.”"

Last season, the #18 team didn’t perform too well with a lack of practice. So with that becoming the norm for 2021, how does he see things playing out this time around?

"“It’s an interesting play having no practice again, we’re going to have to see what we can get done with the simulator to ensure we’re best prepared for each race but the simulation can’t tell you exactly what the car is doing. It was definitely more difficult on us last season, there’s no question about that. But this year there’s a new group and the presents an opportunity for us to think things through differently.”"

Over the offseason, he has managed to recalibrate after the disappointment of last season.

"“I have. I mean, for me, I’ve had one-win seasons before. I think it’s been twice or three times actually. Fortunately for me though, the following seasons, we’ve kind of come back and we’ve been able to win three, four, five, eight, whatever times it’s been, in those following seasons.“Obviously being with a new crew chief, that’s going to be an interesting play. The other interesting play is still going to be the fact of no practice and what we can do and what we can get done with simulation in the simulator and that sort of stuff in order to be best prepared for when we get to these races.“The whole #18 M&M’s team with Ben and all my guys, the new guys essentially, it’s going to take a little bit of time to get used to, but also there’s not a whole lot of time for us to get used to one another working with one another at the race track. It’s just get in and go, so it’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out, but I wouldn’t say I’m any more fired up or anything than any other year getting in, getting started.“I mean, obviously I feel like it’s always a five-win season is a good win season. That’s always kind of been my number of what you should have. And if you’re ever short of that, then hopefully there’s years in which you’re past that. And you have seven-win seasons, your eight-win seasons, whatever, in order to kind of rebuild those years that you were short on wins.“So I feel like I’m probably behind the eight ball. I’m not having as many, five-win seasons that I would like to have had through my career. So there’s definitely some catching up to do that’s for sure.”"

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The 2021 season is scheduled to get underway on Sunday, February 14 with the 63rd annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Will Busch finally secure his only missing crown jewel win in his 16th attempt, and how will the rest of his 2021 season turn out?