Kyle Busch’s 19-year winning streak is in jeopardy

1. Is Kyle Busch’s winning streak in jeopardy?


If you want proof that NASCAR is a game of inches, look no further than the NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in February.

Kyle Busch finished third behind Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney by less than the blink of an eye. If he somehow hit .008 on that final run to the trioval, we’ll be talking about his 2024 season in a completely different light.

Had Busch won, it would have been the 64th victory of his illustrious Cup career. It would have made 2024 his 20th consecutive cup season with a win, taking him another year beyond his all-time record. Beating Atlanta would have locked him right there in the playoffs, and any questions, concerns, frustrations and disappointments in the three months that followed would have become an afterthought.

But that’s all revisionist history. The reality is that after a 35th-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Busch is now below the playoff cutoff, struggling to find speed on a consistent basis and in danger of both missing the playoffs and going winless to qualify for the final. first time in his cup career.

All because of that damn .007.

Busch made an immediate impact last season with Richard Childress Racing, scoring three wins at Auto Club Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Gateway. He sat third in points after the 19th race of the season in Atlanta, but there were cracks in the foundation. The 241 laps he led in 2023 were the lowest total of his career, and he led a total of just 15 laps in the final 19 races of the season.

In the 32 races since that race in Atlanta last July, Busch has an average finish of 18.3 and just five top-five finishes. And after taking a fast No. 8 car to Gateway last weekend as the defending race winner, Busch instead ended the race with a rollback in what could have been one of his best chances to break through this season.

With 20 points below the play-off mark and only eleven races to go, it is not an ideal situation for Busch. And while frustration may occasionally boil over (see Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during the All-Star Race), it’s far too early to say this season is a flop for the No. 8 team.

All it takes is one race to keep Busch’s winning streak alive. Remember 2020, when it looked like his winning streak was dead in the water? He kept it alive at the eleventh hour by Martin Truex Jr. and win at Texas Motor Speedway in the third-to-last race of the season.

Busch has had plenty of weekends where he went to lunch, but he’s also had some great runs in 2024 like Atlanta, Dover Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Gateway (until his crash). He just needs at least one race to achieve his goal of making money.

And until then, did anyone beat Austin Cindric on his bingo card last weekend? Cindric has been largely absent from the front of the field since his 2022 Daytona 500 win, but he was still the third-fastest car behind Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney at Gateway and took advantage of their misfortune to take the checkered flag.

Heck, during the 2022 dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, contact between Chase Briscoe and Tyler Reddick on the final lap allowed third-place Busch to steal the win. That turned out to be his only win of his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing, and it was a pivotal moment in keeping his streak alive.

All I’m saying is that it only takes one race to turn a season around. There are still 21 races left for Busch and the No. 8 team to capitalize on a win or multiple wins, even if things look bleak right now.

As long as they show flashes of winning speed in the coming months, they will be fine. But if the team is still lost by the time the playoffs start, it might be time to worry about his streak.

2. Christopher Bell, championship favorite?

Reaching Championship 4 itself is even more of an uphill climb than winning the title at Phoenix Raceway, but when Bell travels to Phoenix for a third straight year, it’s hard to bet against him being the car to beat.

Toyota was having lunch in Phoenix during the first two seasons of the Next Gen car, but things were more than good at the track in March. The manufacturer led 298 of the 312 laps and handed an absolute rout to the rest of the field, with Bell leading and scoring the win.

Last weekend the Cup field tackled Gateway, which is perhaps one of the best predictors for Phoenix given its length and flat turns. Joey Logano won at Gateway in his 2022 title season, while Blaney finished sixth a year ago and led 83 laps at the track.

Bell looked exactly the same at Gateway as he did at Phoenix, as he led 80 laps and had no trouble working his way through the field on long green flag runs. The No. 20 car was the fastest car on the track for 74 green flag laps – more than three times as many as any other driver – and had it not been for an engine failure while battling Blaney for the lead, Bell would have been very drove through well. to another dominant win on a flat, short oval.

It’s still a long way to November, but the next test for the Cup Series on a short, flat oval will take place at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on June 23. It is one of Bell’s best tracks, as he earned a Cup victory at the track in 2022 and was a perfect 3-for-3 at the track in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

He was also one of six drivers who tested in New Hampshire after the Cup race last July. If Phoenix, Gateway and his past performance in New Hampshire are anything to go by, Bell will easily be the favorite and continue to establish himself as one of the most formidable drivers entering this postseason.

3. Does Denny Hamlin’s bracket challenge highlight how much potential TNT’s In-Season Tournament has?

Denny Hamlin’s bracket challenge is already living up to the hype as Gateway provided plenty of twists and action for those who completed a bracket.

To keep everyone informed, the top 32 drivers in points after the Coca-Cola 600 were combined in an NCAA March Madness style. Hamlin was the points leader and paired against Justin Haley (32nd in points), while Martin Truex Jr. finished second in points, competing against Austin Dillon (31st in points).

For each matchup, the driver who scored the better finish at Gateway advanced to the next round. The tournament will last five weeks, with the two drivers continuing to battle for the title at Nashville Superspeedway.

Just over 30,000 groups were filled, and after one race there were no perfect groups left as Gateway featured five lower seeds that upset their higher seeded counterparts.

Could anyone have predicted that Dillon would take out Truex in the first race after being stuck two laps down with a flat tire? And what about that ending? With Blaney running out of gas with victory in sight, he was eliminated from the challenge by Noah Gragson in a shocking final second.

These driver head-to-head battles will become top storylines next year, as TNT’s In-Season Tournament, like Hamlin’s, will feature a 32-driver, five-week race, with seeding determined by results in the previous three races at Amazon Prime.

With a $1 million grand prize for the winner after five weeks, the head-to-head battles between drivers vying to avoid elimination will add a new layer of excitement to the races this summer. And with the proliferation of sports betting and a potential grand prize for any fan who can create a perfect group, there will be a monetary incentive for people far beyond NASCAR’s current sphere of influence to pay attention to the In-Season Tournament, which garners media attention generate and attract new fans to NASCAR.

4. The new Turn 11 at Sonoma…why?

Track limits have become a new set of dirty words in the NASCAR lexicon.

So much so that Sonoma Raceway moved away from the scattered tire barriers around the Turn 11 hairpin in favor of some makeshift concrete walls to prevent drivers from shortening the turn in any way.

Just why?

Apart from the fact that the wall looks less aesthetically pleasing, the solution to the track limits could have been solved by painting a yellow outer line on the inside of the bend; any driver who had both wheels on the right beyond the yellow line would be penalized unless forced to step out, eliminating the need for a wall or tire barriers.

Instead, the wall will reduce the space drivers have before Turn 11, and anyone who hits it will bounce back into the racing line, taking out any cars currently rounding the corner.

It seems like an unnecessary solution that solves one problem and creates a completely different problem. The tight corners of the corner can now become a disaster corner for tight groups of cars on the restarts.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong and this weekend will go without any problems in the corner. But drivers will have to adjust to the new Turn 11 during Cup and Xfinity practice, and I suspect there will be quite a few drivers who won’t be too happy with the changes.

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