Stevens, Busch ideal match

Friends and family of Adam Stevens watch the 2017 Ford Ecoboost 300 at the Buffalo Wild Wings location in Portsmouth. Stevens, a Portsmouth native and a graduate of Notre Dame High School, led Kyle Busch to a runner-up finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings in 2017.

Since his foray into the NASCAR ranks, Las Vegas’ Kyle Busch has been regarded as one of the more special talents to ever come across the top three ranks of the sport — the Monster Energy Cup Series, the Xfinity Series, and the Camping World Truck Series — from the beginning of the 1970s on forward.

Trouble, however, always seemed to stymie Busch when it counted. In fact, over his first 10 years in NASCAR’s top realm, Busch had only accumulated two finishes inside the top-five in points despite collecting 29 wins during that span — eight more than 2000 NASCAR MENCS Champion Bobby Labonte had over his entire career, with most of that time being spent in the same exact car.

That, however, has all changed — thanks to one key addition who hails from the Portsmouth area.

4,187 laps led. A NASCAR Cup Series Championship in 2015 that came with a career-high average finishing position. Career-highs in top-fives (17) and top-tens (25) in 2016. And career-highs in laps led (2,023) and poles (eight) this past season for the driver that has been referred to as “Rowdy” and “Wild Thing.”

However, the maturation of Busch from “Rowdy” and “Wild Thing” into a complete driver who can close the deal has largely come about because of the addition of Adam Stevens, who has meteorically risen up through the NASCAR ranks en route to becoming one of the best crew chiefs that the sport has seen.

And that’s something that his family, including his youngest sister, Elizabeth Porter, beams with pride about. In fact, over the last three seasons, Porter, along with additional relatives and close friends of the Stevens family, have held a party at the local Portsmouth Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the “Championship Four” round of the MENCS playoffs, a round that Stevens has made every season since earning the promotion to the top of the pit box of Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry prior to the start of the 2015 season.

“We’re all just really proud of Adam,” Porter said at the party. “There’s always so much stuff in the news that is negative, so it’s nice to see positive things, especially from a person that you love so much and who has worked extremely hard. The whole family’s proud of him, and our entire hometown is behind him. It’s just fun to watch.”

As with most racing fans and aficionados, the sport is usually not a taste that is acquired, but rather, one that comes from within from the start of one’s life. That was certainly the case for Stevens, whose father, Greg, toiled away as a dune buggy and late model racer on a week-to-week basis when he wasn’t busy operating his own business, titled Stevens Construction.

Eventually, the younger Stevens followed directly into the footsteps of his father, and the two began not only making the weekly trips to Portsmouth Raceway Park and Southern Ohio Speedway together, but racing together in late model competition, as well, with Adam racing in the 31A and Greg racing in the 31S. But while Greg would get to race against his son, the father would unfortunately never get to see Adam grow into the fine crew chief that he has become as the elder Stevens passed away in 2009 before that chance had come.

Still, Porter knows how her Dad would feel from up above.

“My Dad was racing in dune buggies and race cars before we were all even around,” Porter said. “Our family’s always been involved in racing. We were always at the track for years and years and years, going to to Portsmouth, Southern Ohio, Eldora, Florence (Ky.). It’s just neat to see him at the top of his game. With my Dad always watching over and making sure he’s doing good, it’s just cool. It brings chills every time I watch him on TV. I just know that our Dad would be really proud. He’s smiling and looking down on Adam. Dad would be proud to see his son building on what they (Stevens and Busch) have built together.”

After graduating from Ohio University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, the persistence of Stevens — who made special trips to Charlotte to speak with individuals within the NASCAR industry in the hopes of getting involved with the sport — paid off as Petty Enterprises hired Stevens as a design engineer. Then, when Joe Gibbs expanded Joe Gibbs Racing into a three-car operation, Stevens then made the jump to race engineer.

But Stevens’ big break came in 2011, when the then-32-year-old finally got a golden opportunity when the Portsmouth native got to work with Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and JGR development drivers Ryan Truex and Drew Herring back in 2011 in the Xfinity Series. There, Stevens accumulated impressive stats that yielded two wins, 10 top-fives, and 22 top-ten finishes in 31 races with the team as a crew chief.

However, if 2011 showed off the promise that Stevens had on top of the box, 2012, 2013, and 2014 were the realizations of that promise.

Over the next three seasons, Stevens led Logano and Busch to 28 wins in three seasons as the crew chief for the team, including an astronomical 10 poles, 12 wins, 21 top-fives and 22 top-10s in 26 races with Busch in 2013 en route to putting himself on the map as an excellent crew chief candidate for a NASCAR MENCS organization, especially considering that Busch won nine of his 12 races from the pole. The results were so impressive that Stevens, who won 17 poles and 19 races with Busch, was brought on board as Busch’s crew chief in the domino effect of crew chief moves that resulted from another expansion in Gibbs’ stable — this time, from three cars, to four.

Stevens’ success, however, was, to put it lightly, somewhat expected in the Xfinity Series. Joe Gibbs Racing had won 49 races in the Xfinity Series from 2008 to 2010 alone even before the addition of Stevens atop the pit box, and was arguably the face of the lower of the two major stock car series.

In 2015, however, Stevens was done no favors — from the opening race of the year until the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

While competing in an Xfinity race at Daytona the day before the season-opening Daytona 500, Busch was taken out in a wreck that saw the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota hit the inside concrete wall, one that wasn’t protected with SAFER barriers. As a result, Busch had to sit out the season’s first 11 races to recuperate from a broken leg and a fractured foot.

But Stevens toiled on.

After working with Matt Crafton, David Ragan, and Erik Jones over the first 11 races of the year, the controls were handed back to Busch, who proceeded to go on a tear by winning at Sonoma (Calif.) in his fifth race back, then taking home victories at Kentucky, Loudon (N.H.) and Indianapolis (Ind.) en route to making it back inside the top-30 in points — the minimum requirement necessary for Busch to qualify for the newly formatted Chase that was introduced in 2014.

Busch then went on a tear during the 10-race playoff under Stevens’ direction, scoring six top-five finishes and winning the final race of the year at Homestead to claim the 2015 title. As a result, Stevens became the first crew chief since Doug Richert in 1980 to win a championship in his rookie season at NASCAR’s highest level.

Over the past three seasons, Busch, who has won 14 of his 43 races until Stevens, has turned into arguably the most consistent driver at the top level of racing today.

In fact, the 32-year old Busch has posted his three best average finishes in a season (10.8, 11.5, 11.5) over the last three years under Stevens, who has guided Busch to the Championship Four round three years in a row. Likewise, Stevens is one of only two crew chiefs — the other being Rodney Childers, who is the crew chief of Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford — to qualify for the Championship Four round three times since the introduction of the current format, and Stevens is the only crew chief to have qualified his driver for the Championship Four round in each season of his career so far.

”It’s neat to see Adam go from racing a late model growing up to now,” Porter said, “where he is at the pinnacle of his career as a crew chief in NASCAR.”

On Sunday, Stevens nearly pulled off the big prize again, as the crew chief set up an outstanding M&M’s Camry that was arguably the best car in the field on long runs. However, an untimely caution — brought out, ironically enough, on a flat tire by his brother, Kurt, with 39 laps to go in the race — ruined the pit strategy that Stevens had set up on a silver platter.

Still, Busch, who trailed Martin Truex, Jr., by more than two seconds with less than 20 laps remaining, showed off that long run speed, cutting a deficit of just over two seconds down to three-tenths of a second with less than 10 laps to go. Busch, however, could get no closer than two car lengths, and a last-ditch effort in turn three by the 2015 champion was rendered moot as Busch, who packed the car into turn three on the last lap, washed up the track as Truex, Jr. won the race and the championship by five car lengths.

Competing for championships in any sport, however, takes tremendous drive and courageousness, which is something that Adam Stevens has shown throughout his career.

And that tremendous drive and courageousness is something that Stevens took from the family and friends that he got to know right here in the Portsmouth area.

“We text all of the time with Adam. We always have a family group message going with all of the sibilings, giving him a hard time about races and the pit strategy calls that he’s made in them,” Porter said, grinning. “This season’s been a little difficult for him. It’s not been the best season for him, but we talk back and forth and communicate about the races. We’re all just proud of him, no matter what happens.”

Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT