Aside from Kyle Larson — for very, very different reasons — it’s likely that no driver was more negatively impacted by COVID-19’s effect on NASCAR than Kyle Busch.
Busch, arguably the most talented driver in the NASCAR Cup Series field and already on a hall of fame trajectory, nosedived in 2020, winning only a single race for the first time since 2014. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, normally a master at feeling his car and providing feedback to his crew chief, struggled immensely with the elimination of in-person practice and qualifying.
It all led, in Busch’s words, to him getting “fired” from the No. 18 Toyota — at least, that’s how it felt.
And now he’s starting over.
Busch will roll out for Sunday’s Daytona 500 with a new crew chief atop the pit box. Ben Beshore replaced Adam Stevens this offseason, breaking up a pairing that had garnered two championships and made the No. 18 a factor in nearly every race. Making the transition amid continued social distancing protocols is an added challenge.
“It’s going to take some getting used to, but at the same time there’s not going to be a lot of time for us to get used to working with one another at the race track,” Busch said Friday via conference call. “It’s just get in and go.”
Ever the perfectionist, Busch is just about the only person who isn’t convinced he’ll have a serious bounce-back season. Although Daytona isn’t typically a test of skill, Busch does have the seventh-best odds of winning the Great American Race — a testament to Las Vegas’ faith in its native son.
Past performance is no indicator of future success, though, something the demanding Busch always is quick to remind reporters and fans who think that just because he’s been there before, he’ll be there again.
NASCAR is planning another pared-down race weekend slate this season, with the once three- or four-day visits filled with multiple rounds of on-track time now cut down to the minimum time needed on-site to pull off the race.
For a driver whose willingness to put in seat time has been one of the things that separated him from the pack, his hesitance to take anything for granted is understandable.
“To me, obviously, being with a new crew chief, that’s going to be an interesting play,” Busch said. “The other interesting play is going to be the fact of no practice and what we can do and what we can get done in the simulator to be best prepared for these races.”
The simulator is nice, but it’s no replacement for the real thing. Then again, for the past few years, there’s really been no replacement for Kyle Busch.