Kyle Busch will be at the center of the most dramatic change in NASCAR circles in the new season.
After winning races and championships in a long and successful partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch will open the 2023 season driving for Richard Childress Racing. It’s the change that almost no one saw coming, in part because Busch and Childress had something less than a wonderful relationship.
Busch is 37 years old, and this will likely be his last stop in NASCAR. With two Cup championships, 60 Cup wins and 224 wins across NASCAR’s national series, he has nothing to prove. Even many of his detractors rate him as one of the best wheelmen ever in stock car racing.
A few weeks away from turning the calendar in a big way, Busch talked about that move, his latest views on safety issues and his son Brexton’s focus on racing in an interview with NBC Sports.
Busch won only one race in 2022 and failed to advance out of the first round of the playoffs. Over a stretch of 16 races across much of the second half of the season, he had a top finish of ninth. It was a very un-Busch-like year, one that became tougher as he dealt with the impending departure of long-time sponsor M&Ms and the likelihood that he wouldn’t be returning to Joe Gibbs Racing.
Q. The season didn’t go as well as you would have liked. How much of that was about the cars and how much of it was about all the other stuff swirling around you? Was it possible to separate that from being on the track?
A. “I would say that the beginning of the year we actually started out fairly well. We had some decent runs. We sat on the pole and finished second at the Clash. We finished sixth at Daytona. We had a fast car at California, but we were overheating. We had to pull some of the radiator ductwork screen protector stuff out. We had top-five lap times throughout the second half of the race, but it just didn’t work out. We were going to win Vegas, leading laps there, racing with a teammate. The list can go on.
“We were really good the first half of the year, then it was right around Nashville where we were running second and we should have stayed out on the final caution but didn’t. We pitted. We ran 22nd. After that, it seemed like we fell off the rails. Nothing we tried, nothing we did could ever really materialize.”
“That was around the same time of the year that it was known that I was most likely not going to return to the 18 car. I feel like there was definitely a bit of a downturn in competition and stuff like that. It’s hard to prove, obviously, but it felt like things didn’t really feel the same after that. We kind of went the rest of the year struggling to find our way. Felt like a boat in water with no propellers. Couldn’t go anywhere. Even when we did have decent runs and had opportunities to run up front or score a win – we blew up at Darlington while leading, we blew up at Bristol while running top five. That pretty much eliminated us from contention for the remainder of the year.
“Martin Truex went winless for the season. Denny Hamlin was very, very, very hit or miss through the beginning two-thirds of the season until we got to the final 10 and they really hit their stretch and were consistent. But he only won two races. Christopher Bell was kind of like Denny. They only had one win going into the playoffs, and then they kind of found their way a little more toward the end of the year, and they had a couple of clutch wins at Charlotte and Martinsville. As a company, I would say that Joe Gibbs Racing was down for the year for wins and being as strong a Toyota conglomerate as we once were. I feel like the new car hindered us a little more than the other makes.”
Q. You’re at the point in your life with this Gibbs change where you could have done almost anything. You could have become Brexton’s full-time racing director or you could have looked for a ride in another series or you could have just gone to the Caribbean and hung out. Do feel like you still have some things to prove in NASCAR, or did you just want to keep racing?
A. “Both. I remember 2015 (when he missed 11 races after leg injuries in a crash at Daytona International Speedway) pretty vividly and being on the sidelines and not being able to race and be in a race car. I missed it. I give this world of NASCAR our life, if you will. Everything I’ve got. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of agony at times. But it’s all rewarding and worth it when you’re able to win and be successful and have fun doing it. I’d admit the last few years haven’t been fun. It could have been a point where you shut everything down and walk away, and it’s over. It would be a crying shame to do that in one’s prime feeling like I still have at least five or six years left in me as long as I stay healthy and keep going on that front.
“The other piece to this is I kind of looked at it, and there was that point where I didn’t know if I was going to have anything. I was like, “OK, I’m going to have to become comfortable mentally if this is it.” Fortunately, Austin Dillon called me (about driving for RCR), and we got to talking on that front, and I thought, “You know, this could be really something cool where I can have something like a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning effect.” I’ve said that a couple of times, and I mean it. I’d really, really, really love to go somewhere else and make a difference and bring one of our longest-tenured race teams, Richard Childress Racing, back to the forefront of winning and contending for championships and winning one. Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. in 1994 was the last one. I would like to think that I still have that ability. I definitely know I have the drive and desire to do that. It’s just a matter of having all the right people in all the right places and making it happen.”
Q. Do you expect to be able to charge out of the gate there, or is it going to take a while for everybody to get used to everybody?
A. “I expect to come right out of the gate and get going and be fast right away. I hope that comes to fruition and starts at the Clash. Last year, (Tyler) Reddick qualified second and blew my doors off in the first 15 laps of the race and drove away and had a big lead, and then they ended up breaking, and I inherited the lead. Then (Joey) Logano ended up beating me, and Austin Dillon finished third. I feel like there’s a really good sense of a baseline to be able to go out there and be fast and competitive right out of the gate and look good like we need to. I don’t think it will take much time. Fast cars cure all.”
Kurt Busch, Kyle’s older brother and a former Cup champion, was sidelined this season with concussion-like symptoms after a hard crash at Pocono Raceway. He seems unlikely to return to full-time competition.
Q. Kurt obviously had a serious accident this year. Did that have any kind of impact on what you think you want to do going forward? You’ve had your own bad wrecks, but he was taken out essentially by that accident. What was that like for you?
A. “I sympathize with him because I was out with injury at one point for 11 weeks. Mine was bones, which are easier to fix, but I don’t know that his type of injury had any weight on my decisions. I know it had weight and still carries weight today or our drivers council and the work that Jeff Burton and all those guys do in discussions with NASCAR to make sure these cars are as safe as we can make them. We had some of these discussions early on when we saw schematics (of the Next Gen car) two years ago. I guess nobody thought it was real that we thought somebody would get hurt, and here we are. Regardless, Kurt’s injury didn’t have anything to do with me making my decision.”
Q. Are you satisfied going into next year as far as safety issues are concerned?
A. “Yes. I feel like we always could do more. That’s sort of our push on NASCAR. We’re too reactive, and the reactive state of making changes is so slow. Like they have to go through a design process. They have to go through a crash-test process. They have to go through a build process. They have to have enough parts built to distribute to the teams to have enough cars to allow us to run it. They’ve created a disaster with this car and all the processes it takes — when they came down with the fact that you have to buy from single-source suppliers instead of teams being able to do the majority of work themselves and get everything caught up faster. It’s a process. It’s tough. It’s hard. I get it. I don’t think drivers are very patient people. We’re never going to be satisfied that everything happens fast enough.”
Q. What’s your latest thinking on the possibility of trying the Indy 500?
A. “Everything has kind of gone dark. Unfortunately, the teams with Chevrolet powerplants all kind of have deals lined up. IndyCar racing in general is sort of stretched thin on people right now. To do a fourth effort at one of those teams – to go out and find enough people to do it – doesn’t make sense and isn’t going to work. I know being a race team owner on the truck side that if we wanted to run a fourth truck it would be really difficult to do. The people you get to do that aren’t people who necessarily travel every week and know the ins and outs of the race track. I understand the dynamic of that. It’s not yet the right time.”
Q. With Brexton, you probably put him in cars to have fun and see if he liked it. Obviously, he has talent for this. Can you pick out a point where it kind of moved from being a fun thing to this could work into something bigger?
A. “It was his sixth birthday. We had a race. We had run for about six months and weren’t doing very well. When he turned 6, it was like a switch flipped. I basically told him, ‘No more baby (stuff). You’re 6 years old. You’re a big boy. Let’s go.’ He went out there, and he was passing cars and getting more aggressive. He goes through waves and swings. He’s really brave, really aggressive. Hasn’t wrecked for a while. Then he has a wreck, and you have to go through the rebuilding of the confidence to build his confidence back up. This last year has been really, really good. We show up at the track. He knows what to do and expect. He’s kind of like, leave me alone. Which is great. It’s a lot easier to pull a rope than to push one. We’re moving him up into different cars and different divisions. People ask, ‘Well, what’s his plan?’ I really have no idea. I really haven’t sat down and worked out a pathway of what to do and where to go.”
Q. How do you determine what’s successful for him?
A.”To me, it’s relative to competition. We went to a couple of races in the Midwest this year, and he raced against these kids in Junior Sprints. Not to bash anyone, but he raced against six or eight other kids, and he destroyed them. There was a fast kid out in the Midwest who Brexton beat a couple of times and he beat Brexton a couple of times. How I judge him is how he does against the competition that shows up. His year this year in the Beginning Box Stock division at Millbridge (Speedway near Salisbury, N.C.) — he ran third in points, but the ones who beat him were 9 years old. The age group is supposed to be 5 to 8. They got grandfathered in and ran another year against Brexton. We won the most races, but we got behind in points and finished third. Next year Brexton will be turning 8 and will finish the year running Beginning Box. The Millbridge crowd is very, very good. It’s probably the most competitive group of racers in the country. We’ve traveled around a lot, and I’d say our home track is the toughest in the country.”
Q. Has he scared you yet?
A. “The first really scary crash… he was warming up and just figuring out how to race and letting the car drift a little sideways and getting faster. It got loose and he lifted and he was already turned right to catch the slide. The car hooked and went straight into the wall on the frontstretch. When I was 15 and coming out of Legends cars and getting my feet wet in Super Late Models, I did exactly the same thing. I was like, ‘Wow, this is ironic.’ But it taught him that you can crash and you’re OK. It broke his helmet. That was probably the scariest one. He’s flipped once. I wasn’t there to see it. Mom was scared, but Brex got out and said, ‘Hey, can we fix it and race later?’ That was good. He’s a racer’s racer. He’s got it going on.”
Q. Last question: Before you walked out of the candy store the last time, did you take a forklift and get a bunch of boxes of candy bars?
A. “Fortunately, I still have an awesome relationship with all the M&Ms folks and the brand people. I did ask for a shipment of stuff back in August. They have another brand, too, called CocoaVia — some nutritional supplements and stuff like that. I asked if they could send it. They showed up yesterday. I can still call upon those guys. They’re great. It’s just really unfortunate for NASCAR and Joe Gibbs Racing and for me and for all of us that M&Ms, which has been a proud supporter of NASCAR for 32 years is no longer with us. Everybody is going to miss that iconic M&Ms paint scheme being on the track, especially the kids. I’m going to miss seeing all the young fans wearing that stuff and cheering us on all the time. But I’m looking forward to them wearing the new stuff with the 8 car and cheering us on at RCR. It’s just going to be a little different.”