Richard Childress Racing managed another multi-win season as a multi-time champion joined its Cup Series stable. But drivers Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon left 2023 wanting more.
Busch made the highly publicized transition from Joe Gibbs Racing to RCR’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina, and won nearly immediately, scoring a victory at Auto Club Speedway in Week 2 of the regular season after leading Lap 200 of the Daytona 500 seven days earlier. The 2015 and ’19 champion netted two other victories (Talladega Superspeedway in April; World Wide Technology Raceway in June), which locked him into the NASCAR Playoffs for the 11th consecutive year.
Dillon, winner of the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 and 2018 Daytona 500, had a less fruitful year with far more frustration than in years past.
In one sense, it was a tale of two opposite seasons for the new teammates. In another, those disappointments were shared across Dillon’s No. 3 team and Busch’s No. 8 program.
Busch’s postseason push ended after the Round of 12, eliminated after the series’ visit to the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Despite his three wins — a personal best since winning five races in 2019 — all six of Busch’s DNFs came because of damage.
“I mean, I would say it’s OK,” Busch said of the No. 8 team’s year ahead of the Phoenix finale. “Did we meet expectations? Yes. I would say there were a lot of doubters that I wasn’t going to win at RCR and all that stuff. So for us to go out and win, I feel like that was really good. You know, we’re building on a notebook and building on our program this year here to be able to get ready to go back to some of these places for a second time next year. So I’d like to think next year can be even better.”
Ultimately, Busch finished the year ranked 14th in points, his worst final points position since a 20th-place showing in his 2005 rookie season. He was ahead of only Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who rounded out the 16-driver playoff field at season’s end. To say 2023 was a failure for Busch, crew chief Randall Burnett and the No. 8 team would be a harsh overstatement — three wins, 10 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes cannot be overlooked. But as a former title winner with a sure ticket to the NASCAR Hall of Fame after he hangs up his helmet, hopes were undoubtedly higher for Busch this season.
“We had a lot of highs and lows,” he said. “So the peaks and the valleys were very far and spread wide. So we got to clean that up and just, you know, obviously raise our bar, get more top 10s, more top fives. Even though we’re high on those amounts, we’re very high on DNFs as well, too. So that’s where, like you said, the inconsistency lies and being able to be better at that. So I think there was probably two at least, maybe three other races that we had potential we could have won. Wish I could have them back but, you know, it is what it is.”
So came plenty of growing moments for Busch and his new teammates, led by Burnett who crew chiefed the No. 8 car to three wins in 2022 with then-driver Tyler Reddick. Per Busch, there was no shortage of accountability in diagnosing persistent issues, all in an effort to produce better and more steady results.
“It’s tough because you sit in a room and you talk about all the negative, right?” Busch said. “You’ve just gotta go, what didn’t work? What was wrong? What was missing? And all that stuff and just this, this, this, this, this we need to fix. And there was like, OK, well what did we do good? What did we have good? And it was like, not a whole lot, you know? But that’s the times in which you’ve got to be tough — Randall and them tough on me, and me tough on them. All of that.”
The season was a further struggle for Dillon, who wound up 29th in points with career-worst numbers in average start (20.0), average finish (21.8), DNFs (10) and tied a career low with 20 lead-lap finishes.
A veteran who’s competed at the highest level of stock-car racing since 2014, Dillon saw modest improvement in the closing stages of 2023 with a 10th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capitalizing on a sixth-place qualifying effort and cultivating a fifth-best average running position of 8.75.
“When you have a good run like Homestead,” Dillon said, “you go back and look at it and you prove to yourself that when given the right opportunity, you can take advantage of it and you can race with those guys. And sometimes you might put in more effort — like this year, I feel like I put in more effort than I ever have and getting less from it than I ever have. So, it’s still a sport and you have to take it seriously every day. But also sometimes, you’ve got to laugh and just enjoy the situation you’re in and come out the other side and know that there’s going to be a time where it’s going to be your turn.”
Crew chief Keith Rodden was new to the No. 3 team, who returned to the pit box for his first full season since 2016. Rodden most recently served as crew chief for Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports through 27 races of the 2017 season, winning that year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Kahne and the No. 5 Chevrolet.
Dillon said his relationship with Rodden has “been tested for sure” through a grueling Cup season but remained optimistic for what’s ahead.
“It’s grown and we’re still growing our relationship,” Dillon said. “But what I’ve learned about him is he’s not going to give up on me. And you know, when times are like that, when you make it out the other side, your relationships are better.”
Dillon is the grandson of car owner Richard Childress and son of Mike Dillon, the team’s executive vice president. So the driver of the famed No. 3 Chevrolet has a vested interest in the overall performance of RCR with a potential future eye in team management.
There were plenty steps taken in the right direction this year, but work within the shop persists with eyes on a better 2024.
“I think we’re capable of winning races and being in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “And we’ve got to do a better job of when we get in the playoffs, capitalize a little better. Kyle just didn’t really have a great second round and we couldn’t help him as much as we needed to. So hopefully next year, we’re both in it, we’re both fighting together and we have more shots at it.”