Tom Willoughby : "What's wrong with Kyle Busch?" A look at Busch's 2020 slump and what we can expect from him in 2021

 




Few topics in the NASCAR world were more talked about than Kyle Busch’s winless streak and his decline in performance in 2020.  After winning his 2nd championship in 2019, expectations were high in 2020, but Busch suffered through a disappointing season, going winless until the 34th race of the season when he visited victory lane at Texas in October for his lone win in 2020.

Opinions varied as to why victories eluded Busch in 2020, and the Kyle Busch haters had a ball throwing out theories on why he wasn’t winning.  Busch turned 35 during the 2020 season, and one popular opinion is that Father Time was beginning to catch up with Busch.  Another opinion is that the lack of practice time was hurting Busch’s performance.  Possibly the most absurd opinion was that the overall decline at Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) exposed Busch as a mediocre driver that could only win when he was in superior equipment – don’t laugh, I actually read that one more than once!

The truth is that there’s nothing wrong with Kyle Busch.  Kyle Busch is an immensely talented driver, and he didn’t wake up one day and just forget how to drive.  As much as people might want to envision Kyle walking into Joe Gibbs office and asking him “which one of these pedals is the gas and which one is the brake”, it simply didn’t happen.  So, let’s take a deeper dive into the 2020 version of Kyle Busch..

Slumps are not that uncommon, and Kyle Busch’s 2020 season could best be described as a slump.  They aren’t uncommon among NASCAR drivers, even among Hall of Fame caliber drivers.  Kevin Harvick, who is still going strong in his mid-forties, suffered through a similar slump.  In 2012, Harvick only won one race.  Eight years later, Harvick is still going strong!  Admittedly, Harvick was driving for Richard Childress Racing(RCR) at the time, and RCR was beginning to decline in 2012.  Harvick aside, there are other examples of drivers suffering through a mid-career slump.  Jeff Gordon went winless in 2008 and won only once in 2009, but rattled off 10 more wins in his career before retiring. Gordon and Harvick were both 37 when they suffered through their slump.  Even the great Dale Earnhardt, Sr. suffered through a miserable 1992 season where he only won one race, but rebounded and won championships in 1993 and 1994.  Earnhardt was 41 at the time of his slump.  The slumps of Harvick, Gordon and Earnhardt all look very similar to Busch’s 2020 season.  Harvick and Gordon were both 37 when the hit their slump and Busch turned 35 during the 2020 season, so a slump in your mid-thirties is not uncommon for a NASCAR driver.  Harvick and Earnhardt only won one race during their slump, which is exactly what Busch did this season.  Maintaining a high standard of excellence, as Busch has done for the last 15 years, is incredibly hard to do, so let’s cut him a break for having one sub-par season. 

The schedule is another factor that did not play into Busch’s favor in 2020.  Between rain delays, elimination of practice and shortening or skipping races at some of Busch’s best tracks, the #18 crew had to feel like both Mother Nature and the NASCAR schedule makers were out to get them.  12 of Busch’s 57 wins have come at the following tracks:  Watkins Glen, Sonoma, Chicagoland, Darlington and Pocono.  What is significant about these tracks?  Well, due to the schedule upheaval, Watkins Glen, Sonoma and Chicagoland all got skipped on the 2020 NASCAR schedule.  Pocono and Dover had their races shortened.  These tracks account for over 20% of Busch’s career win total.  Elimination of 3 of them and shorter races at the other two certainly hurt Busch’s chances of getting into victory lane in 2020.  Another popular opinion is that the lack of practice time hurt Busch in 2020.  There may be some substance to this theory.  From a driver’s perspective, there was probably no bigger change than the elimination of practices in the post-Covid portion of the season.  It seems plausible that this hurt Busch and impacted his win total.  He was running for the same team, had the same crew chief, and visited the same tracks, but couldn’t find the same speed.  Practice makes perfect, and maybe Busch needs that practice time to work with his crew chief to get the car dialed-in.  Also under the category of needing time to get the car dialed-in is the fact that 9 of the first 15 races were impacted by weather.  When a NASCAR track gets rained on, it’s like starting from scratch for a crew chief, and most of your setup plans get washed away like the rubber that had accumulated on the track.  If you subscribe to the theory that Busch needs time to get the car dialed-in, then Mother Nature certainly didn’t do him any favors with all of the rain delays that made fine-tuning a setup even more challenging.  Admittedly, this line of reasoning may fall into the category of “excuses”.  After all, it was the same for everybody, and all teams had to face the same challenges, but they did still throw an added challenge onto an already difficult season. 

Finally, it’s somewhat overlooked that the overall JGR performance dropped in 2020.  JGR had an unbelievable 2019 season, winning 19 races, landing three drivers in the Championship four and bringing home the championship.  It would be unfathomably difficult to put together back-to-back seasons of that caliber.  By most standards, 2020 was a good season at JGR, with 9 wins, but 7 of the wins came from Denny Hamlin, with Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. each having one win apiece.  The lack of parity in how the wins were distributed at JGR is what’s most striking when comparing 2019 to 2020.  In 2019, Busch won 5 times, Hamlin had 6 wins and Truex led the way with 7 wins.  The fact that almost all of JGR’s wins came from the #11 team in 2020 is what should concern fans of JGR racing.  Martin Truex, Jr. suffered a similar decline in performance as Busch, going from 7 wins in 2019 to 1 win in 2020, but Truex doesn’t draw the ire of keyboard warriors, so his 2020 season stayed under the radar much more than Bush’s season.  Truex may have flown under the radar with his lone win, but it shows that Busch wasn’t the only Gibbs driver that was struggling in 2020.  Don’t expect the coach to be content with ultra-talented drivers like Truex and Bush winning one race apiece.  Gibbs will figure out the problems and make the appropriate changes.

The bottom line is that it’s extremely tough to win in NASCAR.  There are millions of ways to lose a race and very few ways to win and one sub par season out of the last 15 isn’t any reason to push the panic button.  Kyle Busch is still as talented as any driver in the garage, not only has he not forgotten how to drive, he’s at the “sweet spot” in his career with the right blend of experience and talent that make him a threat to win anyplace he races.  Look for Busch to come back with a strong 2021 season and visit victory lane multiple times.