Of the 16 drivers racing Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn spots in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, one is likely to draw the most attention.
Kyle Busch. And for multiple reasons.
Saturday night’s 500-lap marathon will be Busch’s first Cup race since the Tuesday morning announcement that he will depart Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season to drive in 2023 for Richard Childress Racing.
Busch enters Saturday’s race in a bit of trouble. He is 13th in the 16-driver standings, two points below the cut line. He needs either a win Saturday or a move on the positive side of the cut line to continue pursuit of a third Cup championship in the Round of 12.
A failure to qualify for the playoff’s second round would mark the first time Busch has been eliminated in the opening round, and it would be a major black mark on what will be his final season with JGR and a rather ignominious result for a driver of his caliber.
A collapse in the playoffs would not be the darkest of times for Busch during his 15-year JGR tenure, however. The partnership between one of the sport’s most volatile drivers and the former Super Bowl-winning football coach has been one of amazing highs — dozens of victories and two Cup championships — and embarrassing lows.
That their long ride together has come to an end is a low in itself. Busch figured to close his career in the warm embrace of Toyota and Gibbs; instead, he is moving to a Chevrolet team that has promise but isn’t considered at the sport’s top level.
Instead of breezing into retirement somewhere in his 40s and possibly opening the door for major-series competition for his son, Brexton, Busch faces a bit of rebuilding at RCR, which has two drivers — Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick — in his year’s Cup playoffs but has scored only four wins since 2019 and no Cup championships since 1994.
Busch will arrive at the doorstep of the Childress shop with a history of altercations, including, ironically, a significant one with his new boss. Aggravated at how Busch was racing his Truck Series drivers in 2011, Childress punched Busch several times at Kansas Speedway in 2011, absorbing a $150,000 fine from NASCAR. That incident, quite serious at the moment, was played for laughs at Tuesday’s press conference as Childress presented Busch with a watch, a reference to Childress asking someone to “Hold my watch” before engaging in fisticuffs with Busch 11 years ago.
Even if he misses a crack at another title, however, Busch’s time with the Gibbs team is one of the most remarkable driver-owner success stories in stock car racing history.
He has scored 56 of JGR’s 198 Cup victories and won his two titles (2015 and 2019) in Gibbs cars. Since Busch joined JGR in 2008, his 56 wins top the overall winners list, with Jimmie Johnson (50) and Kevin Harvick (49) next. It is not stretching matters too far to imagine that Busch’s Cup win total with JGR could have been doubled. He has finished second 51 times for the team.
Busch has led a staggering 17,335 laps in JGR Cup cars.
In addition, Busch practically owned the Xfinity Series for a time, winning 90 times in JGR entries and finishing second 40 times.
Pockmarked in that run of success are Busch’s battles with other drivers, crew members, his own crew chiefs, media members and a significant collection of fans. Although Busch has a big fan support group that he has labeled Rowdy Nation, many fans delight in his failures, give him thumbs-down (and other fingers) at driver introductions and even boo his team hauler as it rolls by.
There is not a lot of middle ground in the Kyle Busch landscape.
In 2008 at Richmond Raceway, Busch, newly arrived at JGR after leaving Hendrick Motorsports, which replaced him with Dale Earnhardt Jr., made what Junior’s extensive fan base considered a major no-no. Fighting for position, the two cars crashed, sending Earnhardt Jr. hard into the wall.
That sparked a feud that fans of the two drivers were only too happy to pour fuel on. Earnhardt returned the favor in the next race at Richmond, spinning Busch.
Earlier that year, at Atlanta, Busch had scored a historic win, putting Toyota in a Cup victory lane for the first time.
Across the years, Busch’s ride would include more ups and downs:
- In 2009, he and Tony Stewart tangled at Daytona.
- At Bristol in 2010, he logged a remarkable achievement, winning the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races there on the same weekend.
- In 2011, he crashed into Ron Hornaday’s truck at Texas Motor Speedway and was suspended for the rest of that weekend’s racing at the track. At Darlington that season, Busch and Kevin Harvick had an on-track disagreement. Harvick parked beside Busch on pit road and tried to hit him through the driver-side window. Busch moved away in his car, and Harvick’s car, minus its driver, rolled into the pit wall.
- In 2015, Busch ultimately would win his first Cup title, but the year started under a big cloud when he crashed hard in the February Xfinity race at Daytona, breaking his leg and missing three months of racing.
- In 2017, Busch, angered by Joey Logano‘s aggressive racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, made a beeline for Logano’s pit after the race and threw a punch at him. A collection of crew members became involved in the scuffle.
- Busch won his second Cup championship in 2019 and now is the only active driver with more than one title.
Saturday night he continues along the road toward another. And toward the end of the biggest part of his racing journey.