Redemption. In more ways than one for not only Kyle Busch, but his new boss Richard Childress too. The 37-year-old driver led the final 21 laps of Sunday’s Pala Casino 400 to score his 61st career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
It’s honestly, a quicker than expected start Busch says on his short time with RCR so far.
“Truthfully, no,” he said if he thought he’d challenge for this so soon. “I felt like there was going to be a little bit of a learning experience, a little bit of a growth pattern.
“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. It’s not about me always winning but it’s about the guys. I’ve been with a lot of great people that have given me a lot of great opportunities in my career, so it’s awesome to be able to reward them.
“I’m going to enjoy it for sure, and hopefully there’s many more left to go.”
It was a record setting feat as this was the 19th consecutive season that he’s reached victory lane too breaking a tie with Richard Petty.
“19 straight years. Richard Petty had that record. He and I were tied at 18. There’s not very many records that you can beat that Richard Petty has, and certainly that was one that I set early on a long, long time ago that I always wanted to achieve and get, so I’m just so thankful for the opportunity to set that bar and would love to continue to keep raising it,” he said.
It’s not shocking that these feats occurred on the Southern California racetrack though.
Fontana is such a special place for Busch. It’s the site of his first win back in 2005 on this very racetrack at the Auto Club Speedway. He won his 200th victory in NASCAR here too. In the 33rd and final race on this 2-mile layout, Busch triumphed in front of a sold-out crowd.
“A lot,” Busch said of his Fontana memories. “I would say that the first one that comes to mind is when I was 16 years old. I came here to run in the Craftsman Truck Series, and I practiced, I was fast he’s in practice and had a really fast truck and then somebody decided I wasn’t old enough to race, so they kicked me out. That was my welcome-to-NASCAR moment and welcome-to-California-Speedway moment.
“But was able to come back, and when I came back here the next time I came back was — no, I ran Xfinity here. My first Cup Series start here I was able to qualify on the pole, and then we finished 25th, and then my second time here, I qualified 25th and I finished first. That one was much better.
“But first win, my first Cup Series win was here. We’ve had five wins, including today, so just great time at California Speedway. There’s a few in there that I missed out on, but I think it was also here where I won — I was the first person to win two NASCAR races in the same day, Xfinity race and a Truck Series race if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, this place has had a lot of great memories.”
It also was redemption in the fact that he’s won here five times, three of which for different teams. The first win came with Hendrick Motorsports. The next three with Joe Gibbs Racing. On Sunday, he did so in just his second start with Richard Childress Racing.
Busch also rebounded from an early pit road speeding penalty on Lap 43 to still manage to reach victory lane for the first time on asphalt since Pocono in June of 2021. Last year’s win came on dirt at Bristol.
Busch exited his second pit stop of the day in third but that penalty relegated him down to 31st. He’d rebound to finish 11th at the stage break. He’d improve 10 more spots to finish second in Stage 2. For that final stage, Busch led six laps early, but saw Ross Chastain rise back up to the top spot.
Chastain led a race-high 91 of 200 laps including 21 straight before the final round of pit stops. Busch was stalking Chastain throughout the end of that run and while the duo hit pit lane for their final pit stop on Lap 166, Busch exited in front of Chastain.
So, when the field cycled around on Lap 180, Busch inherited the race lead and never looked back.
Busch wasn’t the only one who rebounded to a good finish after some early race troubles. Daniel Suarez also had a pit road speeding penalty of himself on Lap 68. He’d rebound to finish fourth in the end. Brad Keselowski was spun on the backstretch by Corey LaJoie on Lap 41. He’d come away with a seventh-place result in the end.
LaJoie not only had that incident with Keselowski, but he also had a hand in AJ Allmendinger’s crash on Lap 74 and a spin of his own on Lap 80. He still finished in the top 15 when it was all said and done in 14th.
Trackhouse Racing A Legitimate Championship Threat
Around this time last season, we wondered if Trackhouse Racing could sustain this early season success. Daniel Suarez finished fourth in this very race. A week later, Ross Chastain led 83 laps and finished third in Vegas. Were they going to be a legitimate threat?
They ended up being so. Chastain won twice and marched all the way to the final round of the playoffs which ended with a runner-up finish in the final standings. Suarez won in Sonoma and was 10th when it was all said and done.
The question for 2023 was, could they build even further off that 2022 success or was that a flash in the pan with this being a new car?
I’d say after the early start to this season, they may be the leaders in the clubhouse for a championship run.
Chastain has won 3 of the 4 stages this season including leading the most laps (91) on Sunday. While he didn’t necessarily win the race outright, he did sweep both stages and finished third.
“He got faster. I don’t know,” said Chastain on the ending. “Our balance was building loose most of the day, so I thought we did everything right. We kept up with it. It would just feel pretty loose late in the runs, and at times it was enough, and at times they got way better. I felt like we were the steady force.”
If you go back to the end of last season, Chastain has six top four finishes in the last eight races including 5 of which in the last 6 at that.
“To start off this year the way we have is a total 180 from last year when it was not like this, so as much as it stings, as much as it does hurt, hats off to Chevrolet for top four there, and pumped to be in this position with Trackhouse, and for our first crack at the big tracks here, it’s all we can ask for, and we will regroup and study and be back next week,” said Chastain.
Suarez was one spot behind Chastain on Sunday in fourth place.
Trackhouse had dual top 10’s in Daytona (Suarez 7th, Chastain 9th) and now dual top 5’s in Fontana (Chastain 3rd, Suarez 4th).
RFK Racing, RCR Off To Strong Starts
Once upon a time, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Racing were two of the premiere teams in NASCAR. Those old Dale Earnhardt vs. Mark Martin battles were a sight to behold. Now, history is seemingly repeating itself. Well, not quite yet, but it could soon be if the ascension of these two organizations continues through the 2023 season.
At the Busch Light Clash, RFK Racing (formerly Roush Racing) struggled. However, they vowed for it not to ruin their end of season momentum from 2022. They didn’t either.
With 5 laps remaining of the Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski was 1st. Chris Buescher was 2nd. While end of race carnage halted that momentum, it was still Buescher in fourth and Keselowski in 22nd. However, Keselowski led the most laps in that race (42) while Buescher led the second most (32).
On Sunday in Fontana, they finished seventh (Keselowski) and 13th (Buescher). For Keselowski, it was a rebound for an early race spin. For the team, it was a massive improvement from a year ago to where Keselowski finished 27th and Buescher in 33rd.
The same sort of improvement is on the horizon for RCR. While they looked good here last year with Tyler Reddick sweeping both stages and leading 90 laps in the process and teammate Austin Dillon finishing runner-up, this season, Busch won this time around and Dillon in ninth for Dual Top 10’s.
However, look at how this season has gone for them overall. They finished 2-3 in the Clash, they were running 1-2 at Lap 200 of the Daytona 500 and now 1-9 in Fontana.
2022 was the most wins (4) in a single season for RCR since Kevin Harvick won 4 times for them in 2013. It’s a long way from being winless in 2021 and having 1 win in 2020. In fact, from 2014 through 2021, they were winless in 6 of those 8 seasons. They had 1 win in the other 2 years each. This time, they had 4 trips to victory lane and 3 of the 4 were at iconic tracks in Indianapolis, Daytona and Talladega.
While all 4 wins were also on “wild card” type tracks with a pair of road course wins and a two more on a superspeedway, it still was signaling that RCR is trending up.
Busch gave them a win on a 2-mile track on Sunday.
Harvick Carrying SHR On His Shoulders
As we spend the 2023 season and look back and celebrate a great career that Kevin Harvick has had, one thing being overshadowed now is, where does Stewart-Haas Racing turn to replace him?
That’s ever more evident in the fact that as we sit here after two races run this season, Harvick is carrying the weight of SHR on his shoulders again. He backed his 12th place finish in last week’s Daytona 500 with a fifth place result on Sunday in Fontana. The other three drivers finished 20th (Chase Briscoe), 33rd (Ryan Preece) and 35th (Aric Almirola).
As teams in the NASCAR garage have gotten younger, SHR is in transition. Almirola almost retired at the end of last season. He’s back for another year in 2023. However, his days are numbered as this could be his final year too. If not 2023, I don’t see him going much past 2024.
Now that we for sure know that 2023 will be Harvick’s last, there’s a very real threat that none of the drivers that were with this organization as soon as 2019, will be racing for them in 2024.
However, as SHR has taken a step back in performance, who’s going to take the baton and carry SHR into the future?
“I know you don’t like to hear these things,” Tony Stewart said in a video tribute to Harvick back in January, “but you’re the flagship at SHR. Single-handedly, without a doubt, the greatest racer we ever had.”
When SHR was formed for their debut season in 2009, they immediately won. However, this was Tony Stewart’s team then despite them also having Ryan Newman as a part of it.
Stewart won 13 of the first 15 races for SHR. Newman had 3 total wins from 2009 through 2013.
2014 it transitioned really over to Kevin Harvick. SHR doubled their fleet that year going from a 2 car team to a 4 car operation as they added Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick while letting Newman go.
Harvick won the championship that year. He and Busch were the veteran presence that SHR needed as Stewart’s shelf life was waning.
Over their next 23 trips to victory lane, Busch and Harvick combined for 22 of them. Stewart had one.
Clint Bowyer won for them twice in 2018 but this was largely in the midst of Harvick’s reign.
SHR has won 69 total races entering the 2023 season, Harvick has won 37 of them. In fact, from 2019 on, Harvick has 16 of SHR’s 19 wins with only Cole Custer (once), Aric Almirola (once) and Chase Briscoe (once) having won in that span.
So when Harvick walks, out goes 37 wins and counting with him. Almirola has two trips to victory lane at SHR, Briscoe has one and Ryan Preece has never won a Cup race yet. I would sense that Custer would be the easiest replacement for Harvick to move him back up, but he has that lone win in 2020 too.
In theory, if Almirola returns in 2024, SHR would boast a lineup with 5 career wins (that’s if they don’t win at all in 2023). If Almirola walks too, out goes his 3 career wins.
Which is why the most intriguing aspect to Harvick announcing his retirement is where does SHR turn? Who’s going to be their new on track leader?
They sit 4th (Harvick), 25th (Almirola), 33rd (Briscoe) and 34th (Preece) in points after the first two weeks.
Reddick Off To A Rough Start With 23XI Racing
Tyler Reddick had a great view on Sunday to watch his former car win the Pala Casino 400 at Fontana. His replacement, Kyle Busch, had a car capable of winning the Busch Light Clash, the Daytona 500 and now did win in Fontana. Meanwhile, Reddick struggled in the Clash, was 39th in the Daytona 500 and 34th in Fontana. If you go back to the end of last season, he’s had four DNF’s in the last 5 races including being the second to worst finisher in Daytona and third to worst in Fontana.
As we head to Las Vegas, Reddick sits 38th in points, last among those scoring Cup points this season.