While there are many likely uncertainties as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season gets underway, one thing is for certain – Kyle Busch will be on a redemption tour.
In fact, one could even argue that Busch has already started his comeback campaign before a regular-season Cup race has even been run. After all, the 35-year old for Joe Gibbs Racing won the Busch Clash, even if it was in a way he might not have expected.
Regardless of how the victory came to fruition, or if the race did not officially “count” toward the 2021 driver standings, the result was a positive one for Busch. Why? Well, winning close to anything over the duration of the 2020 Cup campaign was difficult to come by for the No. 18 Toyota. Despite collecting 17 top-five finishes and 27 top-10 finishes over the course of the 2020 season, Busch only had one win to his resume (Texas Motor Speedway on Oct. 28, 2020). In fact, Busch’s 2020 season marked his lowest win total in a season since 2014, when he also collected one (Auto Club 400 on March 23, 2014). Over the course of his 2019 championship campaign, Busch collected five wins.
While the victories certainly were not there for Busch in 2020, a new season has risen. Should Busch go back to more normalcy he was able to achieve during his 2019 title season, the 35-year old should become a more consistent mainstay in victory lane this season and perhaps, make championship noise once more.
What was the difference between the two seasons, though? What were the stark differences that proved to be the x-factor between a championship season and one non-championship one?
Well, let’s look into it.
To start, let’s look at his average finish over the course of his 2020 season. Despite wrecking or succumbing to engine troubles in six races last season (the most in a single season during his Cup Series career since 2005, when he had eight such races), Busch picked up a 13.9 average finish, which was tied for 13th among all Cup Series racers last season (Ryan Blaney also had a 13.9 average finish). Over the course of his 2019 championship season, Busch’s 8.9 average finish ranked first among all Cup drivers.
Busch’s inconsistencies in finishing races and winning them when comparing his 2019 and 2020 season was expected to be a stark difference, though. It does not take rocket science to conclude that with more crashes and mechanical issues, a driver is less likely to have a high average finish. To better look at the difference between the two seasons, it is best to look at his maneuverability through the racing field, in addition to his lap speeds, between the two campaigns.
When discussing quality passes (which is calculated each time a driver passes a car running in the top 15 under green flag runs), Busch’s discrepancies between his 2019 and 2020 season continues to emphasize itself. When looking at his quality passes and his percentage of quality passes (the sum of these passes divided by green flag passes) over the course of his 2020 season, they ranked 10th (2,014 quality passes) and fifth (62.3%), respectively. While this again was not terrible (his quality pass percentage ranked ahead of the likes of Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, for instance), it was nowhere close to his 2019 rankings. Over the 2019 season’s entirety, Busch compiled 2,344 quality passes and maintained a quality pass percentage (QP%) of 64.8%. Both areas ranked first among the entire field.
Then, of course, there was his number of laps led and percentage of laps led (LL%). Busch’s 516 laps led and 5.4 LL% during the 2020 season both ranked eighth. During his 2019 season, however, Busch led 1,582 laps and possessed a 15.6 LL%. Both areas, again, ranked first among all Cup drivers.
From this, the obvious could be concluded. 2019 was as close to a career title season as Busch could have expected on a lap-to-lap basis, while his following season was one marked with more inconsistencies and average production as opposed to elite production.
Should Busch thread the needle and find more middle ground between the two seasons as the 2021 season gets underway, he should not be a fringe contender like he was last year. Instead, he should be a more legitimate one. Should Busch maneuver through traffic atop the upper echelon of the racing field and use his patented speed to his advantage, more positive results will present itself, similarly to how the 2021 Busch Clash fell in his favor.
While there is no way of telling if Busch will revert to his 2019 self or continue his 2020 production, one thing will be certain as the green flag is waved for the first time this season – should Busch find more consistency atop the field, he will be back on track toward title contention everyone knows he can do season in and season out.