Kyle Busch set the NASCAR news cycle on tilt at Talladega Superspeedway with one simple word.
That offering was couched within a series of short answers Saturday (April 23) regarding Busch’s potential future with Joe Gibbs Racing. The team has yet to find primary sponsorship to replace Busch’s longtime backer, Mars, Incorporated (M&M’s) which has chosen to leave the sport following the 2022 season.
Busch’s contract is also up at the end of the year and he has not signed an extension. Questions about his status sparked a tense one-minute, 22-second session that started with a simple answer as to when Busch wanted a timeline about his racing future.
It was on like Donkey Kong from there. When asked about the sponsor search, Busch was curt, claiming it was “not my problem” and making clear assembled reporters could “ask Joe Gibbs.” And if a sponsor wasn’t found? Busch insinuated JGR wouldn’t be in his future plans.
.@KyleBusch’s team is still on the search for a new sponsor as Mars Chocolate departs at the end of the season.
— Noah Lewis (NASCAR) (@Noah_Lewis1) April 23, 2022
For some, the reaction to this news was like a bombshell and a resulting five-alarm fire. Kyle Busch not with Gibbs? Retiring? WTF is happening? (For the record, Bob Pockrass caught up with owner Joe Gibbs later who claimed, “we’re confident we’re going to get things done.” Make of that answer what you will.) But it seemed like for all in assemblage, including some of my fellow media comrades, utter shock pumped through the room as if no one thought free agency for Busch was an option.
On paper, Busch is one of the most accomplished drivers in NASCAR history. His 60 NASCAR wins rank ninth on the all-time list and are the most among active drivers. Unless Jimmie Johnson makes a miracle comeback, Busch is the only one still racing with multiple Cup titles to his name (2015, 2019). That would seem to make Busch JGR’s Most Valuable Player.
But recent history tells a different story.
Since the start of 2020, Busch has only won four times at the Cup level. That’s actually third-best among four JGR drivers behind Denny Hamlin (10) and Martin Truex Jr. (five). Both Hamlin and Truex have made the Championship 4 while Busch whiffed in back-to-back years for the first time since the current format was adopted in 2014.
A crew chief change from Adam Stevens to Ben Beshore has helped, but only slightly as Busch is on pace to lead just 400 laps this season. That would put his total for the past three years at 1,250. 1,250! That may sound like a lot but Busch led over 1,000 laps in 10 out of his first 12 seasons with JGR. One of the years he didn’t get there (2015) was also a year he won the title anyway despite missing one-third of the season due to injury.
So to go from 1,000 laps led, like clockwork, every year to 1,250 over three years is a pretty big step back in performance. At the same time, JGR is going all-in on a young poker player named Ty Gibbs who’s taking no prisoners in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. No matter what you think about Gibbs’ maturity, the talent level is undeniable and may necessitate a jump to the Cup Series as soon as 2023.
Gibbs’ grandfather? He’s also the owner, a former NFL Super Bowl-winning coach heavily invested in his family’s success. You don’t let the franchise quarterback moonlight elsewhere, at 23XI Racing or some satellite team to wait for one of the four JGR seats to open up.
That means someone is going to give up their seat. It’s not Hamlin, at least right now – he’s signed through 2023 and heavily intertwined with Toyota. Maybe Truex? His potential retirement would open up a slot but he’s got an option to return in 2023. Sponsorship and commitment on JGR’s side seems secure and the choice is in the driver’s hands – no one else.
That leaves us with Christopher Bell, driving only his second year in the No. 20. It’s one year less the amount of time JGR gave Erik Jones before giving him the boot for poor performance, although it’s possible such impatience will repeat itself.
But things change. The sport evolves. And right now, NASCAR’s strongest team is a Hendrick Motorsports outfit where all four drivers are under 30 years old and about to be locked up over the long term. JGR, by comparison, has three of its four drivers over the age of 35; two are over 40.
You don’t get younger and play catch-up by ditching a 27-year-old in Bell.
It is why I’ve felt for a while that Busch, turning 37 next month, was vulnerable to potential change. And then there are some intangibles outside of Cup he brings to the table – or, should I say, no longer does. For years, even when Sundays turned up empty, Busch could bring home buckets of Xfinity Series trophies, giving JGR and Toyota an added bonus.
That’s no longer happening. Busch “retired” from NXS competition after going a perfect five-for-five in that division in 2021, notching a record 102 career victories. Busch can only compete in a maximum of five races anyway in NXS and the Camping World Truck Series under current NASCAR rules – and in the latter, he doesn’t compete for JGR. His Kyle Busch Motorsports team is independently owned and hasn’t been as effective for him in 2022; Busch has yet to win this year in three starts.
The coup-de-gras may be what’s happening off the track. Yes, there’s some validity to Busch wanting to spend more time with son Brexton’s racing career and family. He and his wife Samantha are expecting a second child through a surrogate this year and retirements at this age are not unheard of. (How old was former teammate Carl Edwards when he left? Why, 37, of course).
But we also have a running joke in sports television that there are two types of people in our business. You have nice people you tolerate because their personality makes up for awful on-the-job performance and total assholes you hate to work with but keep their position cause, well, they’re just too damn good.
What happens when you’re occasionally an ass off the track but not so good anymore?
Busch’s persona remains temperamental, occasionally played up to match his bad boy/villain image that some might say is this generation’s version of Dale Earnhardt. But it doesn’t always hit the bulls-eye and occasionally makes life difficult for his employer. Remember how openly cranky and difficult Busch was during the 2019 playoffs? And that ended with a cantankerous Busch winning the title.
It’s much easier to handle all that when you’re bringing home the hardware every week. But now there’s a younger version flashing Busch’s temperament racking up the race wins instead. And last I checked, he’s related to the owner by blood with years of upside left.
Is there going to be room left for two high-maintenance stars? A driver of Busch’s caliber will have plenty of options if he’s available; something tells me after Saturday, we won’t have to wait too long to find out if he needs them.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.