Kyle and Kurt Busch are at turning points in their respective careers
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch entered this season knowing that people would have questions about their performances.
The elder brother, Kurt, has people wondering if his 21st full-time season will be his last. The younger brother, Kyle, in his 17th full-time season, has people wondering if he will ever again find the dominance he had in winning two titles and 28 races from 2015 to 2019.
So far, those questions remain, as Kyle sits 13th in the standings and Kurt sits 15th just seven races into the 2021 season.
Kyle is looking for his first win of 2021 and has just two wins in his past 65 starts. He dumped crew chief Adam Stevens, the crew chief who led him to those 28 victories and two championships, and replaced him with his former engineer, Ben Beshore.
Busch has started 2021 much like he finished 2020, with cars that are good but not great enough for his liking and strong runs spoiled by mistakes or misfortune (how was he the only car at Bristol to have mud pack his grille and not fall off?).
He hopes that Atlanta, where he rallied from a speeding penalty to finish fifth a few weeks ago, served as a sign.
"We were fast right at the start of the race," Kyle Busch said. "We drove our way up toward the front. We kept clawing all day long. Every time we had setbacks, too, we’d get back toward the front.
"It was nice to have that speed in our race car that we could perform like that."
As the Cup Series heads to Martinsville, Busch believes he could have another strong car without practice. Beshore won the Xfinity race last year as crew chief with Harrison Burton.
"It was the first time the Xfinity cars had been to Martinsville in a long time, so there was no practice. They literally just lined it up and raced at Martinsville, and they were super fast," Busch said.
"Harrison was able to win that race. Ben was with me when we were successful at Martinsville, the years that we won in ’15 and ’17, so I’m looking forward to getting there, and hopefully, we have some things in store for us to be fast."
While many new driver-crew chief combinations take time to develop chemistry, Beshore said he feels fairly in sync with his driver, with whom he worked for several years as an engineer before spending 2019-20 as an Xfinity Series crew chief for several drivers, including Busch.
"That’s all been good as far as working with him. We’ve worked together for a long time," Beshore said. "It’s nothing new. We’re not learning each other’s language. All that is there already, and all that groundwork is done.
"That helps a tremendous amount going to a track with no practice."
While two of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have wins (Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell), and another (Denny Hamlin) leads the standings, Busch can see that he has the same number of top-5 finishes (two) as Truex, who is third in the points.
"I feel we’re capable of doing the Vegas and Atlanta [top-5] finishes every week," Beshore said. "[We’ve had] some unfortunate things that have kept us from making those into top-5 or top-10 days that have us in the mid-teens in points. ... We’ve had top-5 speed plenty of times.
"We missed it a couple of times, but I feel like we’re close. We’ve just got to take that next step to start knocking out wins."
Just a couple of spots behind his brother in the standings, Kurt hasn’t had to deal with anything all that new. He and crew chief Matt McCall are working for their third year together at Chip Ganassi Racing.
At 42 years old, Busch filmed a video last fall for sponsor Monster Energy in which he drives a race car in the Florida Keys. In the video, he calls a mock news report of his retirement "fake news" — but also indicates that this could be his last season.
"Is retirement for me? Am I ready to retire? I’ve won it all. I’ve done it all. I’m so very satisfied. And it’s been a great ride," he says in the piece.
Busch has repeatedly said he put out subliminal messages and is leaving the question of whether he will retire open for interpretation – while always asking people to watch the video.
"There are always those things that keep drawing any racer back," he said. "And there are those subliminal messages I sprinkled in throughout."
Will he retire? Busch has already tested the Next Gen car that will debut 2022, and if he were definitely walking away, there would've been no reason to do so. He also might want the challenge of winning in that car and therefore spend another year or two on the Cup circuit. He said in January that he will talk to his Chip Ganassi Racing team and Monster about whether he will return.
For team members, the focus is on the car.
"In this sport, there’s some things you can’t control," McCall said. "We just try to control what we can control.
"You’d like to say every week you’re taking your fastest car to the race track. ... There’s weeks I feel like we definitely have got room for improvement."
McCall laughed a little when asked if he feels any responsibility for whether Busch returns, knowing that solid cars could encourage the driver to continue racing at Ganassi.
"To dictate whether or not he wants to continue to do this, I don’t think it’s 100 percent on me or our team," McCall said. "But on the bad weeks, I’m sure when he leaves, he’s like, ‘Golly, do I want to continue to do this?’ Then on the good weeks, he’s, ‘Heck, yeah, I want to keep racing.’
"For my sake, I hope we can all put it together and that’s what he wants to do."
The next several races will be key for both Busch brothers — just like every other Cup team — as they try to evaluate the first seven weeks and build on what they’ve learned.
"I’ve always looked at the start of the year as the chunk of races before the Easter break," Kurt Busch said. "And that’s how a team evaluates what direction they need to go."
McCall said the team just needs to forget about the crash at Atlanta and the sour performance at Phoenix. He said the margin for speed is tight, and it’s easy to tune themselves out as much as tune themselves in during the race.
"We were a top-10 [car] if everything goes good," McCall said of the majority of races so far this year. "The biggest thing is to not let [the points] be a distraction and continue to work on what we need to work on to get better each week. With the no-practice stuff, you don’t always know, but you think you know based off history.
"I feel like going to Martinsville, we should be in a pretty good spot to get back to where we need to be running."
The next five races are at tracks that are in the playoffs: Martinsville, Richmond, Talladega, Kansas and Darlington. Beshore noted that it is a snapshot of the playoffs and an ideal stretch, as Kurt Busch said about Ganassi, for the JGR team to build on what they learned from the start of the season.
For Beshore, he said the team’s package for 1.5-mile tracks is solid, and they look to improve their short-track package.
"The communication is good," Beshore said. "We’re trying to figure out what we need to be faster. We’re getting better each week. All aspects of the team are starting to come together really well.
"I feel good about where the team is at and know that there is still room for improvement at the same time."
What To Watch For
Watch from the start: Joey Logano and Hamlin start on the front row at the track where they scuffled in 2019. Hamlin has five career wins at the track. Logano has one.
Truex has led 725 laps in the past three races, including wins in October 2019 and June 2020.
Chase Elliott was the dominant car when NASCAR left there in October 2020, as he led 236 laps on his way to the win.
Other drivers with solid histories at Martinsville: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski have two Cup wins apiece at the track. Among drivers who have won in trucks at Martinsville: Kyle Busch, Logano, Hamlin, Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Bubba Wallace. Harvick also won a 2006 Xfinity race at the track.
In Xfinity, watch whether Noah Gragson has any issues with Daniel Hemric (they fought after Atlanta). And watch JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry. In 2019, Berry led all 200 laps of the late model stock race at the track – arguably the most prestigious event of the year for those cars – for the biggest victory of his career.
Thinking Out Loud
This weekend’s Xfinity-Cup slate at Martinsville feels like it has something missing, even with the modifieds running Thursday night.
Oh, yeah: no trucks.
Last year was the first year two truck races weren’t scheduled for Martinsville, as the result of Martinsville sending a truck race to Richmond and Richmond sending an Xfinity race to Martinsville. The Xfinity Series now has two races at Martinsville, with an additional race in 2021 coming from Iowa.
While having Xfinity racing at Martinsville is cool, the track and community embraced the trucks. It seemed like a perfect fit of beating and banging at the small Virginia track and a place where the trucks received more focus than at many of the other stops.
The trucks should race twice at Martinsville. Why? Because there was nothing broken about Martinsville having two truck races. This is a classic case of if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
This Josh Berry paint scheme for the Xfinity race May 8 pays homage to JR Motorsports co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the scheme he had in his emotional July 2001 victory at Daytona. That was a baseball All-Star Game scheme with Budweiser.
This scheme doesn’t have the sponsors, but it has the look.
Check out the newsletter every Thursday leading into the Mother’s Day weekend of racing and throwbacks at Darlington Raceway.
They Said It
"I’m trying to be careful to not negotiate contracts through the media. I think those things will work out here over the next few months, and hopefully, there will be something exciting to announce for you." – Brad Keselowski on his contract negotiations
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!