Kyle Busch out to build on ‘decent speed’ so far in COTA return

Sean Gardner | Getty Images
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas – The NASCAR Cup Series season to date has been a curious mix so far for Kyle Busch, who tried to explain those ebbs, flows and undulations Friday afternoon at the Circuit of The Americas. The mostly flat expression said it all.

Five races in, there’s more to the season’s story for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota, and maybe more to crow about than his explanation might reveal. He has the chance to improve on what’s already there in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, PRN, SiriusXM), just the second Cup Series race at the 3.41-mile circuit and the first road-course event for the Next Gen car.

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“I think the car is fine. We are all trying to figure it out and learn what it potentially is and what it is that makes it go fast, what the knobs are that you need to turn at particular places,” Busch said about the adaptation. “I feel like we’ve had decent speed everywhere we’ve been except Phoenix. Phoenix was really bad. Vegas, we were fast – coulda, shoulda, woulda. California, we were OK, worked on it and came back from five laps down. Picked up 10 spots in five laps. Last week was fast. Probably one of the fastest cars in the field and just got caught up in a wreck. We don’t really have anything to show for this year, which is disappointing. No stage points. That’s about it.”

The frank assessment did omit some of the plusses from Busch’s season so far. His stage-point count is actually better than zero, but it’s still just a meager eight – placing him in a tie for 22nd-best in the series. Still, he’s currently the only JGR driver with a top-five finish this year, and that was the fruit of a mammoth rally at Las Vegas to lead a season-best 49 laps and claim fourth.

Last week’s 33rd-place effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway ended in a tangle with Austin Dillon that set him back a piece, knocking him from second place in the Cup Series standings to 11th. Busch was mostly mum in the Atlanta garage after the early exit before the Stage 1 break, but had a more detailed perspective to share five days later.

“I mean, a couple of replay angles I saw looked a little tough to exactly decipher, but from my vantage point in this seat, I think the air changed in front of him and he wasn’t ready for the air change that happened and he got loose, and then I touched him,” Busch said. “Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. But I certainly wouldn’t push through the corner. I’m smarter than that, better than that. I wasn’t trying to push anybody else any other part of the day through the corner. It wasn’t the time in the day to be pushing. We’re not even in the first stage yet. So I hate it for him. I think he lost it.”

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Busch and Co. return to COTA under far different conditions – sunny warmth instead of last year’s rain-sloshed debut in Austin. Busch led 12 of 54 laps, won Stage 2 and ultimately wound up 10th behind race winner Chase Elliott here in 2021. He paced the opening practice session on Saturday morning.

Busch has four road-course wins in the Cup Series – two each at Sonoma and Watkins Glen – and the schedule’s recent influx of more road circuits has forced the field to sharpen skills at this discipline.

“I’ve always enjoyed the road racing,” Busch said. “Back years ago, when we had two on the schedule – Sonoma and Watkins Glen – it was kind of fun because it was like an off-week. You would go and enjoy the experience and try to learn and get better at it each time that you would do it, but now that there is six of them on the schedule, it’s definitely more loaded towards needing to be good at it — not wanting but needing with the amount of road-course races we have. I feel like I’m a decent road racer and would love to have a chance to showcase that here on Sunday.”