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February 26, 2023

Analysis: ‘Rowdy’ is back — and that should scare the field

Kyle Busch found his way back to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

That should surprise nobody — but it should concern the rest of his NASCAR Cup Series competition.

RELATED: Auto Club results | At-track photos: Fontana

‘Rowdy’ was not contending for wins often last year, his final of 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. His last victory came 28 races ago at the dirt-covered Bristol Motor Speedway — a victory that frankly fell into his lap when leaders Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe tangled in Turn 4 on the final lap, allowing Busch to scoot through to the checkers. He led significant laps at Gateway, Nashville and Darlington but couldn’t close the deal.

There was no backing into his Sunday win in Fontana, his first driving for the storied Richard Childress Racing. Busch led 27 laps, including each of the final 21 circuits en route to the triumph. It was his most Busch-esque performance in recent memory, stalking oft-leader Ross Chastain for the lead late but showing patience in his attack.

An early pit-road speeding penalty mired Busch at the rear of the field for a Lap 47 restart after originally exiting the pits third. Busch powered the No. 8 Chevrolet all the way back to 11th place in the remaining 22 laps of Stage 1, an immediate warning shot to the rest of the field of how quick his machine was.

Busch capitalized on that speed and limited further mistakes, a note that became particularly pertinent on the final round of green-flag pit stops at Lap 166. Moments after nabbing the lead from Chastain, the duo darted for pit road together — but Busch was notably conservative, likely to avoid another penalty. Chastain took as much ground as he could and drew even with the No. 8, but Busch and his crew won the race off pit road anyway.

The two-time champion used that track position to his advantage and held off second-place runner Chase Elliott by 2.998 seconds as Chastain fell to third.

It’s been an incredible start to Busch’s new chapter with RCR — seemingly no need for a get-to-know-each-other period. The exhibition run at the Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum produced a podium finish with a third-place result, parlayed into an impressive Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway that saw the No. 8 Chevrolet lead laps in the Bluegreen Vacations Duel and Daytona 500.

The team left Daytona without the results to show for its dominance, which included the most laps led in Duel No. 2 and heading the field at Lap 200 of the Daytona 500. No opportunity was blundered in Fontana.

His competition knows he’s back — and how dangerous a confident ‘Rowdy’ can be.

Some, though, showed their respect after the two-time Cup Series champion made his return to his winning ways after departing the JGR powerhouse.

“Congratulations to Kyle. For him to leave and then to go get the job done like that is pretty cool,” said Elliott, the 2020 series champion. “He’s always been really good to me, so happy for them and looking forward to getting to Vegas and hopefully competing for some more wins.”

Elliott’s teammate and 2021 title winner Kyle Larson offered similar praise.

One of the best to ever strap into a NASCAR stock car, undoubtedly. Busch’s victory makes history — 2023 now marks 19 straight winning seasons for the Las Vegas native, breaking Richard Petty’s long-standing record after winning in 18 consecutive years.

Busch’s domination has been dense, a career overflowing with some of the most impressive statistics the sport has ever seen. His 225 national series wins — 61 in Cup, a staggering 102 Xfinity victories and 62 Craftsman Truck Series triumphs — tower over anybody else’s tally, including The King’s 201 career wins.

Those 61 premier-series victories rank ninth-most all-time, more than Hall-of-Fame champions Rusty Wallace, Lee Petty, Tony Stewart, and Bill Elliott. Kevin Harvick, who is competing in his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series campaign in 2023, is the only active driver that joins Busch in the top-10 wins list, sitting 10th with 60 himself. Busch notched No. 61 in 644 starts; Harvick has 792 starts.

But for all his success, the rate at which he won had slowed in recent years: He won at least four races per year from 2015 through 2019, bookended by championship seasons, but won just four Cup races between 2020 and last year (once in 2020, twice in 2021 and once in 2022).

That’s why winning Sunday — so early in his tenure with Richard Childress Racing — feels like a statement that Rowdy may have returned to form.

“It ranks high, just because it ranks to the fact that I can do it,” Busch said of his Auto Club win. “I never doubted myself, but sometimes you do. You kind of get down on it. You wonder what’s going on and what’s happening. And you put yourself in a different situation, and you’re able to come out here and reward your guys.”

Anyone lulled into believing his winning ways were in the past seems to be sorely mistaken.

“Why is anyone surprised by this?” Chase Elliott said. “I mean, that’s mind-boggling to me that anyone is surprised that Kyle is fantastic, one of the best race car drivers to ever do this. That didn’t change overnight, so I’m not surprised, and anybody who is should rethink their NASCAR knowledge, in my opinion.”

Rowdy rejuvenated? That’s dangerous for everybody else.