Livescore Thursday, April 25

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway (also known as Gateway), across the river from St. Louis …

1. Big Takeaway

Prior to the season, our survey of more than 500 NASCAR fans asked them to predict which driver with a new team would have a better year: Kyle Busch or Tyler Reddick. Roughly 58 percent chose Reddick and 42 percent chose Busch, who was taking over Reddick’s ride at Richard Childress Racing.

Reddick is having a fine year so far at 23XI Racing; he won at Circuit of the Americas, is tied for the third-most top-five finishes in the series and ranks 10th in the point standings.

But Busch? Despite fans’ lack of faith in the two-time Cup Series champion, he’s thriving at RCR and on pace for one of his best seasons in years.

Sunday’s victory at Gateway was already Busch’s third win so far in 2023, meaning Busch has now won as many times in less than half a season at RCR as he did in his final two years combined at Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch has also matched JGR’s win total from this season, a stat of which he is certainly aware.

The partnership at RCR seems to be working better than anyone could have imagined. Former foes Busch and Childress — whose “hold my watch” altercation had its 12-year anniversary on Sunday — turned out to be a perfect match.

“He’s such a pleasure to work with,” Childress said after the race. “Everybody says, ‘Man, how (are) y’all going to get along?’ Same question they asked me about, ‘You and Dale (Earnhardt Sr.) won’t last six months.’ We lasted 20 years. I want to keep Kyle there, and hopefully, we can end his career when he gets ready to.”

Childress cares about winning races, and that’s what Busch is doing. From 2014-2021, RCR only won four races total. Then the team won four last year, when Reddick picked up a trio of victories and pushed Austin Dillon to a win at Daytona to make the playoffs.

But now Busch has stepped into Reddick’s old car with his former crew and immediately delivered results. Sunday’s race, in which he was untouchable on five late-race restarts, was about as vintage of a Busch performance as we’ve seen recently.

Is he a title contender? Eh, not yet. The results have been inconsistent, and there have been some weeks when Busch and the No. 8 team don’t look competitive at all. But then there are days like Sunday, when “Rowdy” reminds us: Oh, right. He’s still Kyle Busch.

“We’re really putting our heads down and digging in and trying to figure out what it’s going to be able to take to get me comfortable to make me fast,” Busch said. “You’ve got to have a good horse to ride. So far this year, we’ve had a few.”

2. Main Character: Corey LaJoie

This is probably the quietest selection we’ve had for the Main Character slot this season, but it felt like this was supposed to be LaJoie’s weekend. Until it wasn’t.

For those who have followed LaJoie’s career with interest, Sunday was uncomfortable to watch. With Chase Elliott suspended and the No. 9 car in need of a driver for one week, LaJoie got to climb into an elite car with NASCAR’s top organization. Finally, after years of toiling in backmarker equipment and slowly working his way into better rides, LaJoie had a chance to show what he could really do.

“It’s been six years of grinding and stacking pennies to feel confident enough to be able to plug into this No. 9 Chevy and run it to its true potential,” LaJoie said before the race.

It truly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said. When asked how he’d been sleeping in the days leading up to Gateway, LaJoie said there’d been no issues because “it’s like the dream is during the day right now.”

Anyone who has listened to LaJoie’s podcast or witnessed his gradual climb shared in his excitement; it was like seeing a career Triple-A player finally get the call to the big leagues. This was his shot.

But then the race started, and it was like he struck out three times. LaJoie felt like he had nothing to lean on with his car’s handling, never cracked the top 20 all day and ended up finishing 21st. Considering LaJoie had finished better than Sunday’s result in eight of the 14 races this season prior to Gateway — in a far lesser car — it was hard to reconcile.

Even more confusing was seeing young Carson Hocevar hop into LaJoie’s normal No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports and outrun the No. 9 in his Cup Series debut (Hocevar was up to 16th place before a brake rotor exploded and ended his day).

So what happened with LaJoie?

Maybe it was the poor track position, which came as a result of hitting the wall in qualifying (forcing him to start 30th) or somehow hitting the engine’s kill switch at the start of the race, which caused him to drop to the back (he was saved by a caution, thankfully). It certainly seemed hard for many drivers to pass on Sunday, though some were able to make moves through the field.

Or maybe it was the lack of familiarity among LaJoie and the team. Driver/crew chief relationships are so crucial, and the teams learn what their drivers need out of a car to set it up the right way and make in-race adjustments. Listening to the team radio, it felt like crew chief Alan Gustafson couldn’t quite hit on how to give LaJoie the feel he needed (a lack of data due to an internet outage certainly didn’t help, either).

Regardless of the reasons, the whole situation was deflating. LaJoie’s contagious confidence over the years probably didn’t do him any favors, because it added to the hype and made for potentially unreasonable expectations. After all, it’s pretty rare for a substitute driver to run well in his first start with another team (Josh Berry, for example, finished 29th in his first race with the No. 9 team while filling in for Elliott at Las Vegas earlier this year).

But LaJoie himself had declared it was a “put up or shut up” moment. He didn’t get the finish most expected, including himself. Now he’ll have to navigate the emotions that come with a disappointing setback.

3. Question of the Week

How worried should NASCAR and the teams be about the exploding brake rotors?

Four drivers — Hocevar, Reddick, Noah Gragson and Bubba Wallace — crashed after their rotors suddenly blew apart at various times in the race. That’s not something we’ve seen particularly often with the Next Gen car, though it did happen to Kevin Harvick at Gateway’s 2022 race.

Busch crew chief Randall Burnett said teams were more conservative with their Gateway brake options last year because there were so many unknowns with a new car at an inaugural race. Teams can opt to use heavy-duty or light-duty rotors, in addition to choosing how many cooling ducts they point at the brakes.

The problem with Gateway is the track has long straightaways followed by relatively sharp corners. When drivers are off the brakes for a long time, they get cooled temporarily — and then heated right back up again as drivers try to drastically reduce their speed to make the turn.

That heat cycle, Burnett said, takes a toll on the rotors. But it’s also the type of parts failure that won’t happen at most tracks, so perhaps it’s not as much of a problem as it appeared on Sunday.

“When you get back further a little bit in the pack and have to work your rotors harder — using brakes and racing people a lot harder — those things happen,” Burnett said. “I’m sure everybody will take a look at that and try to understand what happened with those cars.”

4. Trash and Treasure

Trash: The idea every wreck is suspension-worthy. When Dillon and Austin Cindric collided with 21 laps to go, collecting Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the process, there were immediate accusations surrounding Cindric’s intent. After all, Elliott’s suspension for hooking Denny Hamlin in the right rear was consistent with a similar incident for Bubba Wallace last fall, so now there’s an expectation NASCAR will continue doling out such punishments.

Dillon said as much in a brief interview with Frontstretch after leaving the care center: “I was wrecked intentionally by him, hooked right, just like Chase and Denny and Bubba’s deal. He better be suspended next week.” During the postrace news conference, Childress also said: “The (No.) 2 car wrecked him there on purpose, sort of a payback.”

But judging by the replay, the Cindric/Dillon incident looked far different than what Elliott and Wallace did. Perhaps NASCAR will find something in the data that shows Cindric was more at fault than the eye test showed, but it sure seemed like more of a case of a “racing deal.” Cindric and Dillon were racing three-wide and there was contact in the process; perhaps Cindric was unwilling to cut Dillon a break, but it didn’t seem to rise to the level of a suspension (or even a penalty).

NASCAR needs to step in and enforce driving standards when necessary in the name of safety, like with Elliott and Wallace. But fans and drivers shouldn’t want officials to be making calls on every single wreck that happens during a race, because NASCAR racing can still be physical and full-contact in most cases without crossing the line.

Treasure: Data. The internet outage that hit Gateway during the race temporarily knocked TV and radio off the air, but those were eventually restored. Unfortunately, things like SMT data and lap times never came back for the teams at the track, which left them in the dark on making adjustments and calls. Of course, no one had data until recent years and the war rooms back at the team shops where engineers relay information to crews at the track is a fairly new trend. So it’s accurate to say a race without data is old-school.

On the other hand, taking away a valuable tool all teams have come to rely on is more of a setback than many might realize. It’s one thing if teams are prepared to have a race with no data; they’d bring all sorts of notebooks and written information to the pit box. But if crew members are used to having full internet access for data and communications — and then it’s taken away mid-race — that’s quite a wrinkle.

We take modern technology for granted and don’t expect it to fail, but it sure increases the appreciation for what it can provide when systems go down.

As Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers explained on Twitter: “Having no timing and scoring, no SMT, no (number of) laps on fuel or tires, no communication with my engineers at the shop,,, all was Extremely frustrating.. I felt so lost..”

5. Five at No. 5

• For whatever reason, Busch and Kyle Larson have always raced well together. Their public comments about the other have often been full of high praise about clean racing, and there haven’t been many occasions in which they made contact. They also are friendly off the track thanks to a shared interest in their sons’ dirt racing. That mutual admiration was evident again during restart after restart on Sunday, and Busch went out of his way to make note of it. “He gave me great respect. I appreciate that,” Busch said. “That will be given back down the road.”

• A piece of Gragson’s car (potentially a brake rotor part) hit a fan named Fred Glover, who documented a small-but-painful-looking chest wound on Twitter. Gragson saw the tweet and responded: “Send me a dm. Hate something came off our car and you got hit by it. I’ll make it right for you and glad you’re alright.” Glover tweeted back that he didn’t need anything, but it was still a cool, fan-friendly gesture — and the type of thing Gragson might do more than any driver in the Cup Series.

• Erik Jones’ front tire changer, Thomas Hatcher, was removed from pit road on a stretcher and went to a local hospital after a scary incident. Dillon was pitting in front of Jones and drove through the No. 43’s pit stall, which made the crew slightly late getting in front of Jones’ car. The front of the car then made contact with the tire carrier and the tire, which apparently hit Hatcher in the head and knocked him backward onto the ground. Thankfully, the team said Hatcher was released from the hospital Sunday night and is “resting and recovering at home” in North Carolina.

• Just a few weeks ago, Ross Chastain had a 27-point lead over Christopher Bell for the regular-season points championship. Two races later, after consecutive 22nd-place finishes, Chastain is now fifth in the standings and 29 points out of the top spot. It’s been a strange month for Chastain, who went from being the talk of the NASCAR world for both his aggressive style and consistent speed to suddenly not being much of a factor. Sonoma this week would be a good place for him to get back on track before the season’s lone off-week, because suddenly dropping off the radar is quite a head-scratcher.

• Speaking of Sonoma, this will be the second of five regular-season, road-course races and a crucial indicator of strength as similar circuits dot the calendar in the next couple months. Reddick won at COTA, but can he replicate that feat again? Can Daniel Suárez, who earned his only career victory at Sonoma last year, go back-to-back? How about the Hendrick cars and Elliott, who will be returning from suspension? And what of AJ Allmendinger, whose playoff hopes seemingly ride on winning one of the road races before the playoffs begin? Those will be some intriguing angles to watch next week.

(Top photo of Kyle Busch: Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

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