Ask any driver what tops his wish list on race day, and speed will overwhelmingly win out every time.
So it came as no surprise that Kyle Busch cited a lack of speed for the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota's lack of results in 2020.
After scoring five wins en route to the 2019 championship, Busch has yet to find Victory Lane this season.
“We're struggling right now,” Busch said after finishing second in the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night. “There's just no speed in our race cars for some reason. I don't know what's going on.
“It seemed like (Wednesday), even when we were mired in 10th, I was driving 110% just to maintain where the hell I was, not going forward. That's usually not indicative of us, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, whatever.”
Among the four JGR drivers—Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Erik Jones—the organization won 19 of 36 races last year. Busch led the tour with 12 stage wins and 46 Playoff points.
After 17 races in 2020, Busch has yet to win a single stage. Then again, he has led only 139 laps this season. Busch is currently 11th in the Cup standings.
“It's certainly been frustrating this year,” Busch said. “It seems like any time I fall into a rhythm, I back up myself just a little bit to 90, 95 percent, I'm going backwards. I'm getting passed, slowing down. You can't run at 100 percent all the time every lap. When you do, you start making mistakes.
“We've just been run into a lot this year, too. When we've had nothing happen, we get run into. Those are bad finishes, as well. I don't know. We can chalk it up to a whole bunch of things.
“For lack of a better term is we've got to be faster.”
Still, speed hasn’t been an issue for Hamlin or Truex. Busch’s teammates have amassed five wins on five different shaped venues from the smallest track on the tour—Martinsville Speedway—to two unique 2.5-milers in Daytona International Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
Is Busch’s assessment that JGR’s cars are slow accurate?
“I think it’s because one of us are hitting the setup perfectly during a given week,” Hamlin said. “That’s how you can kind of tell an organization that has got fast cars. Let’s bring California up for instance. All of our cars, we had one car maybe run towards the front, but all of us were not that good. But Hendrick had the race winner and they had a bunch of guys in the top-five and top-10. That tells you right there that the organization was just fast. Their cars were really fast.
“The cars, when you have an organization that has cars that fast and the cars have speed, you don’t have to hit the setup exactly perfect to be fast and be competitive and run for race wins. I think what he’s (Busch) saying right now is there’s one of us that seems to be hitting it week in and week out and getting the setup closer to where it needs to be and the cars don’t have the all-out speed for us to make that box bigger. That’s probably what he’s talking about, and I don’t necessarily disagree that we do need more speed at this time.”
When comparing JGR’s superstar lineup to other organizations, only Team Penske comes close. Certainly, former champions Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano can win on any given weekend. Ryan Blaney, who won at Talladega Superspeedway, is third in the Cup standings and has contended for wins moreso this season than he has in the past.
Stewart-Haas Racing leads the standings with Kevin Harvick, who is tied with Hamlin for most wins currently with four.
Although Aric Almirola has scored six consecutive top-10 finishes, he has been winless since 2018. Only Cole Custer, with his surprising victory at Kentucky Speedway, has added to SHR’s win column.
Hendrick Motorsports appeared to be on the cusp of a comeback this year with early wins by Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott. Yet with the exception of Elliott’s All-Star victory, Hendrick hasn't won since May.
Currently, Hamlin doesn’t believe there’s another organization that can compete consistently with the Gibbs armada.
“Not week in and week out, no,” Hamlin said. “I like our chances. I would say that I don’t think there’s anyone. Maybe Stewart-Haas, it’s so week-to-week. Stewart-Haas had cars that were up front at Kentucky. All their cars were kind of up front. Who knows, this week at Texas, JGR might look great and all of our cars could be up front.
“I think that you make a valid point, no one has sustained the strength as an organization through the whole year. Everyone thought it was Chevy and Hendrick early on and then that kind of faded. Chase (Elliott) has been the standout from that organization. There’s always been one standout from each organization. Maybe Penske the only consistent ones that have their two or three cars in the top-10 on a more consistent basis right now.”
Hamlin believes with every team—even within an organization—running a different set up, the bonus is on the crew chiefs, engineers and drivers to have the car dialed in when they hit the track.
“Someone is going to hit it better than the other,” Hamlin said. “You can’t change the major parts and pieces under a pit stop, so you’ve kind of got what you’ve got when you decide to unload.”
The absence of practice in the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely affected Busch more than other drivers. Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens were diligent in their execution of setting up the No. 18 Toyota throughout the course of a traditional race weekend where teams enjoyed two to three practice sessions.
“With life not being normal and not having practice, we’ve been unloading at some of these places and not unloading great,” Busch said. “I don’t know if we’ve unloaded perfect and haven’t had to make adjustments to our car one time this year. We’ve been wholesaling it, whether it’s been packer, air pressure, or wedge.
“There has been some times where I’ve felt like we’ve had too much right-front camber and I wish we could change that, but we can’t. There are definitely some things that we’ve been picking up on that I would like to work on that we haven’t had the opportunity to do so.”
Busch will run all three series at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. Perhaps the additional track time will better prepare the two-time champion for Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, where he’ll don the Interstate Batteries livery at JGR’s flagship sponsor’s home track.
“It’s on your mind that we don’t have that win and haven’t really been in contention to get that win a whole lot this year,” Busch said. “It’s just a matter of a lot of circumstances that it’s been the way it has been for us so far.
“Hoping we can start the races close to where we need to be on Sunday and have a good run with our Interstate Batteries Toyota. It’s not normal times, but I know Norm (Miller, Interstate Batteries chairman) and everyone up the road at Interstate would be thrilled to see us win there.”