Busch's spring struggles go beyond Sprint Cup
Kurt Busch's engine going up in smoke was the second DNF for Kyle Busch Motorsports this season. (Getty Images)
Sitting outside top 10 in Cup Series; KBM entries underperfoming early
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
April 20, 2012 10:20 PM, EDT
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- These days, Kyle Busch has a lot on his mind.
The Sprint Cup star is watching the race team he created struggle in its first season since expanding to include a Nationwide program. His Camping World Truck Series entry, which has traditionally been a terror with him behind the wheel, is buried deep in the standings. And his No. 18 car, usually among the best in NASCAR's premier division, has been besieged by problems that have curtailed his team's ability to improve the vehicle.
We just haven't been able to put ourselves in the right position. How we've been running has been terrible.
-- KYLE BUSCH
That latter issue is perhaps the biggest surprise, given how much of a force Busch has often been in the springtime. Although he hasn't won a Chase race since his rookie year, Sprint Cup performance for Busch has rarely been a problem early in the year, when his No. 18 has traditionally led laps in bunches, feasted on short-track stops, and seemed capable of winning any race at any time.
Right now, though, that's not the case.
"We're not a race team capable of winning a race at any given time," Busch said Friday at Kansas Speedway. "I was ready to show up at Texas like we did last [year] and have a really comfortable car, and be able to drive it as hard as I need to and win. I couldn't do that the whole weekend. We fought it bad in practice. Why we did that, we're unsure, but we have our ideas. Like Richmond -- should we be able to show up and win at Richmond? Hell yeah. So, hopefully we can, and that will change my mind. But I haven't proven it to myself that I can show up every week and be a threat to win."
Entering Sunday's race at Kansas, Busch is 14th in points, hardly out of Chase contention with so much of the season remaining. But given how well Busch usually fares early in the year, and given the expectations within a team that believes it should be among NASCAR's best, it's something of a jarring departure from norm. Last year at this time, Busch stood second and had a win under his belt. In three of the past four years, he's won early-season events. Now, he's without a victory since Michigan in August of last season.
"All in all, it's just been a tough year," Busch said. "Certainly, we haven't had the runs that we've been looking for. We haven't been able to come through traffic like we need to be able to, and that's kind of hurt us. We just haven't been able to put ourselves in the right position. How we've been running has been terrible."
Granted, there have been issues, like getting caught up in an accident at Bristol or running over an air hose last week at Texas, the latter of which almost certainly cost Busch a top-10 finish. There have been bright spots, too, like a sixth at Phoenix or a runner-up performance at California in which the No. 18 car dominated the first half of the race. But there's also little question that Busch's vehicles are off just enough to keep them from posting more consistent results or challenging for race wins on a regular basis.
The reason? Crew chief Dave Rogers said his team got behind in the offseason, in an effort to bring new Joe Gibbs Racing crew chiefs Darian Grubb [on Denny Hamlin's team] and Jason Ratcliff [with Joey Logano's program] up to speed. Rogers had been more accustomed to working with former crew chiefs Mike Ford and Greg Zipadelli, who each parted with the organization after last season, and a transition period ensued after the new signal-callers moved in.
"I honestly think we got a little behind," Rogers said. "I think you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. Darian came in over the offseason, Jason came in, and they were two great additions. But we were working on things that Zippy, Mike and I had worked on. So we just kind of slowed down over the offseason, went over those guys' equipment, let them catch up, didn't make any big changes. And now we're trying to take the best of what Darian's bringing, the best of what Jason is bringing, and the best of what we have, and put it all together. I think you're going to see some good parts coming off the shelf soon, but it doesn't happen overnight. I think the disciplined approach has got our cars a little bit behind early, but I think it's going to pay dividends in the end."
As with everything in racing, so much of it comes down to the cars. Busch says he hasn't been completely comfortable in his vehicles this year; the more comfort a driver feels in a vehicle, the more he's able to trust it to do what it's supposed to do, and the more speed he can get out of it. "We've been missing a little bit of comfort in cars this year," Busch said, something that's been evident in runs like Las Vegas, where the team struggled with handling all day, and even a recent tire test at resurfaced Michigan. Rogers said there are new cars coming down the pipeline that will help the team dig out of its hole. Busch looks at the upcoming schedule and tries to stay positive.
"We've had our frustrations, but we're just taking it one week at a time trying to get ourselves back up there," he said. "It does seem a little late in the year to not have a win for us yet, but Bristol is really our only track that we win at early in the year, and we got wrecked. Richmond coming up, that's always a good one for us. I love going to Charlotte. Dover's always really good. So I'm not worried by any means. There's still a lot of racing left. I think we can get ourselves back in the top 10 on our own, and there should be some good races during the summer where if we do need some wins, we can win."
Despite running over his own air hose, Busch gained two spots in the standings at Texas, and he's 35 points behind Clint Bowyer for the final guaranteed playoff spot. "I don't sense any panic in him about where we're running," Rogers said. "I would think if it was there, I would see it pretty quick. I think Kyle is really confident in our race team. He knows we've got better cars coming, and I think he's just being real patient right now."
Patience is something Busch has learned to show a great deal of this season, and not just on the Sprint Cup side. Kyle Busch Motorsports' first season on the Nationwide tour has been a mighty struggle, with Kyle and older brother Kurt combining for a single top-10 finish in six events thus far in the Monster-backed No. 54. Busch said he's been at KBM less this year than at any point since he started the company, trying to make it more self-sufficient and able to succeed without him around. For someone with two owners' championships in the Truck Series, the shortcomings are difficult to watch.
"It weighs on me a lot," Busch said. "It's very frustrating, because I do have high standards, I do want to go out there and run competitive and have a shot to win races. Also, we've got a sponsor where, that's all they do. They race motocross and other different forms of motorsports they win a lot in. They pick the guys they know can do the job and get the job done. Right now, we're not doing that."
Even the No. 18 truck, which won so much with Busch behind the wheel, has struggled with Jason Leffler in the seat. A broken crank shaft last week at Rockingham dropped the vehicle to a precarious 26th in owners' points. "Not sure what's going on there," Busch said, the concern over his race team evident on his face. Soon enough, though, it was time to go out for final Sprint Cup practice, where a No. 18 car that had been fastest in the opening session would wind up 32nd. The chill in the air Friday at Kansas seemed appropriate -- it felt little like springtime, in more ways than one.