Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch says he must be “a hell of a lot better” to challenge for 2020 honours after a mixed start to his title defence.
Busch dropped to 27th in the series standings after the season’s first two races but has rallied back to 12th with finishes of second and third in the last two rounds.
While his results have improved, Busch’s #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has not shown race-winning speed on a regular basis, which was key to winning his second series title in 2019.
Busch has led just 14 laps this season and none in the past three races, whereas this time last year Busch had a victory and had led 227 of a possible 1,111 laps.
“We unloaded and we weren’t very good,” said Busch after Sunday’s race at Phoenix. “I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so.
“I think we probably had a sixth or seventh-place car, but we had a lot of strategy there at the end with tyres and all that sort of stuff – good restarts and being able to make time up on the bottom.
“Once you get that close to the front, you can’t make up that time anymore so that’s kind of where we lost our ground there.
“It’s good to come home third. We need to come back here with a better piece; we learned that we have to be a hell of a lot better than we were.”
While Busch was competitive in the race – and even worked his way into the top-five on a pair of late-race restarts, he never felt he could challenge for victory.
“I wouldn’t say we had a shot, we never had fire-off speed. We were really slow to fire-off and later in the going we were getting better with longevity, but still we were a way off.
“I felt like that when we unloaded, we made some ground on it and got it a heck of a lot better, but just couldn’t get it where we needed it there throughout the race. We have to climb the ladder back and get back where we need to be.”
The race at Phoenix also marked the return to an aero rules package for shorter tracks and road courses that was similar to what was used in the 2018 season. The new package, plus a new tyre combination from Goodyear to go with it, presented its own set of challenges for every team.
Busch said there were “certainly some positives” with the rules change. “You could definitely follow a lot closer,” he added.
“You could get up into a guy’s left-rear and be close enough to their left-rear and follow them close enough that you could try to make a move on them or make a run on them up off the corner.
“[But] when you get strung out, you get strung out. I don’t think you’re going to be able to [keep] these cars close enough together for three-and-a-half hours at a time at one-mile race tracks when you’re very grip-limited.”