“All we need is just a little patience…”
Wise words from one Axl Rose, and words that would seem to perfectly sum up Kyle Busch’s Nitro Rallycross debut last weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Arizona.
While we’re used to seeing the multiple NASCAR champion school the field most times he gets behind the wheel, this time he was less master and more apprentice as he joined the benchmark circuit racing convert Scott Speed and vehicle jumper extraordinaire Travis Pastrana in Subaru’s ranks for a wildcard rallycross appearance.
Having arguably two of the best (and most opposing, in terms of style) drivers to lean on as he got up to speed looked to be vital for Busch, who by the end of the weekend was every bit the challenger.
Sure, his fine fourth in the final – achingly close to a headline-grabbing podium – was helped by failures for three other contenders, but that certainly shouldn’t detract from his acheivement. And his progression throughout the event was testament to that.
During the weekend Busch told Nitro RX reporter Katie Osborne that it was “all about reps”, and a quick look at his practice times will show you exactly that.
A best, non-joker time of 59.296 seconds was how he started Friday, 4.749s off Subaru pacesetter Speed. By the third session, in which he completed more laps than the first two combined, he’d slashed that best time right down to 55.093s – a mere 2.437s off Speed.
It’s that gap to Speed that’s crucial, too. As the weekend progressed, the racing line got more grippy, therefore faster, so naturally an experienced driver like Busch was going to lap faster, but he was also improving in relation to his team-mates with much more experience in the discipline.
But unlike traditional circuit racing, which Busch’s ‘day job’ falls under, lap times don’t always tell the full story in rallycross. You have to weather the storm.
When it came to racing, Busch’s weekend began in unspectacular fashion – and that’s absolutely not a criticism. Drawn up against Speed in his first bracket race, Busch had to cross swords with the best America’s had to offer for much of the last decade.
Defeat to him in that race was inconsequential when you look at the big picture, but vitally it gave him a chance to shadow, to learn the lay of the land from someone who knows not only the discipline, but the transition from stock cars best.
Starting off with a slightly slow reaction to the lights, Busch settled in nicely behind Speed, and when the pair reconvened after opposing joker strategies, he wasn’t a million miles away by the third and final lap.
With more cars packed in on the grid for day two, Busch would have to lean on some of that NASCAR expertise and pick his battles in a crowded house. Again, starts weren’t that great in his heat and semifinal races, but Busch opted to pick his moments rather than dive in head-first as any other headline wildcard might want to do to make a statement.
This method of sitting back while the rallycross regulars did, erm, rallycross things in front of him served him particularly well in the semi.
With the joker shortcuts shaken out and the field on an even keel going towards the end of the race, up front Robin Larsson and Steve Arpin were taking chunks of time out of each other as they fought for the win. An excellent battle for those of us watching, but definitely not the fastest way round the track.
Meanwhile Busch, with lessons from Speed in-hand, was keeping it neat and tidy behind. That allowed him to not only close right up to the lead duo by race end, but when Larsson was later slapped with a five second penalty for squeezing, Busch was in prime position to capitalize. He may have got the transfer spot thanks to an adjudication, but he earned the right to take advantage from it fair and square.
That promotion to second, and with it the main event, may have robbed him of more vital track time in the last chance qualifier, but ultimately he showed he didn’t need it. The final was a similar story to that semi, albeit with everything turned up a notch.
For one, the start was bang on this time, as he nailed his reaction time and taking rallycross legend Tanner Foust at the start. He then went and held off a charging Cabot Bigham and Kevin Hansen into the first corner, something he hadn’t really managed to do all weekend.
'Dammit, it wasn’t third. [I could] at least be on the podium' might’ve been Busch’s reaction after the final, but the smile on his face told a whole different story
While he would later lose out to both a turn later, he re-passed Bigham on the second lap, outjumping the Audi driver and slipping up the inside of turn three – a confident rallycross move that would have you thinking he’s definitely been at this for a while. Jokering for space at the end of that lap, he then had breathing room which would keep him out of danger in what would become a hugely attritional race.
Arpin, Kevin Hansen and Foust all suffered from failures that would drop them out of contention and once again Busch – assured, measured, and clean – was there to make the most of it.
“Dammit, it wasn’t third. [I could] at least be on the podium” might’ve been Busch’s reaction out loud after the final, but the smile on his face told a whole different story. He was pleased with that result and he had every right to be.
And let’s not forget, that’s the best finish for the third Subaru all year – recently anointed European champion and 2019 world championship runner-up Andreas Bakkerud’s best result was sixth during his fleeting stay in the series.
We of course know that NASCAR drivers can shine in rallycross. Speed won on his debut and has pretty much done nothing but win since, while Arpin is always at the sharp end and has a handful of victories to his name too.
But, for Busch – who, don’t forget, is one of the best of his generation – to come into a series that has proven tough for even the most seasoned rallycross competitors, progress as much as he did over three days and do it right off the back of a gruelling 48-race NASCAR campaign is mightily impressive.
It’s just a shame that the NASCAR schedule is as intensive as it is because it means we’re unlikely to see Busch run full-time in rallycross for at least another decade, if ever.
Still, there’s two rounds left this year, and the Cup series is already a distant memory. It might be time to arrange a flight to California Mr. Busch…