LAS VEGAS — Once known as the Outlaw, Kurt Busch morphed into a mentor and statesman in as dramatic a change by an individual in NASCAR over the past 20 years.
Busch, the last active Cup competitor to race against Dale Earnhardt, announced Saturday that he will not compete the rest of this season and will cede his No. 45 seat to Tyler Reddick next year, as he continues to recover from a concussion he suffered this summer.
While the 44-year-old Busch seeks to race again, Saturday’s announcement closes the chapter of his full-time career in a sport that has tortured him at times but also will honor him with induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame some day.
Busch won the 2004 Cup title, 34 series races and scored victories with five different organizations — well worthy of enshrinement in the Hall. Among his wins are the 2017 Daytona 500 and the 2010 Coca-Cola 600.
On Saturday, Busch called himself a “blue-collar kid” who had success early in NASCAR and “wasn’t quite prepared for the big stardom and the corporate side of it and the professional side of it. It was kind of learn as you go.”
Busch arrived during NASCAR’s most popular era in the last 25 years. Cameras were everywhere. Mistakes, gaffes and conflicts were captured and replayed repeatedly. Busch was among those who often provided moments that live forever on YouTube.
A series of public missteps led Roush Fenway Racing to fire him late in the 2005 season and Penske Racing to do the same thing after the 2011 season.
A driver known as much for his volatility as trips to Victory Lane was relegated to the lowest end of the sport after he lost his ride with car owner Roger Penske’s team.
There were questions about if Busch had a future in the sport, if his talent could return him to the top, a recovery few drivers ever complete once they fall so far.
Busch went to James Finch’s underfunded Phoenix Racing team in 2012 and began a slow climb back up the sport’s ranks. After a year at Furniture Row Racing, he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 and won the Daytona 500 three years later.
For all that he accomplished, his growth ranks among the biggest achievements in his racing career. Busch was brought to 23XI Racing before this season to serve as a mentor to Bubba Wallace. Busch said Saturday he looks forward to working more with Wallace off the track, as well as Reddick.
While the challenges were not the same, AJ Allmendinger can appreciate Busch’s climb, just as Allmendinger has gone from seemingly out of the sport to contending for the Xfinity title this year and moving back full-time to Cup next year.
“We’re all different modes, but I think Kurt, you just saw whatever that switch was, he’s just a lot happier over the last several years,” Allmendinger told NBC Sports.
That’s the key, finding that balance between what happens on the track and how one responds off the track.
With his experiences, Busch can provide wisdom gained from his journey. It is something he’s willing to share. He’s also looked to impact the sport in other ways.
“What I will say about Kurt that probably not most everyone knows is that his impact from behind the scenes of wanting to progress our sport over the last few years for sure … he was pulling a lot of strings back there,” former champion Joey Logano said. “I believe he still will. It’s a true statement of a champion that he is, is that he cares about the sport. He wants to leave it better when he got here. That’s Hall of Famer to me in my opinion.”
That Busch doesn’t have the chance to go out on his terms is because of symptoms related to the concussion he suffered July 23 in a crash during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. Busch has not been cleared to race.
The only time Busch’s voice quivered during Saturday’s announcement came as he said “I will be stepping away … from full-time Cup competition in 2023.”
But he looks to continue racing once he recovers from his concussion. He noted how he still wants to win at Darlington and Watkins Glen but also looked beyond NASCAR. LeMans, Australia and elsewhere around the world are items on his bucket list.
Chase Briscoe says he’ll miss racing Busch.
“I will say that Kurt Busch my entire rookie year, I felt like on the race track, gave me more respect than anybody else,” Briscoe said. “Any time I got to me, he was super, super clean. He was the only guy in the field that, if I was faster, would let me go. I don’t know if Kurt was like that with everybody but I appreciated it.”
Ross Chastain has benefitted from Busch’s growth by learning from the former champion when they were teammates at Chip Ganassi Racing. Chastain appreciates what Busch has become.
“He’s molded himself into the person that he wants to be,” Chastain said.