A week after winning the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, you might think that all is well in the world of Kyle Busch. However, victory on the track has not yet resolved Busch’s latest challenge: securing a new contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.
On Saturday, April 23, Busch was peppered with questions from the media on the issue, to which he gave several brief but provocative replies.
Among the highlights are Busch saying that he would like to have his plans for next year decided by “yesterday.” He continued that he was “not getting antsy about it, but if it happens it happens and if it don’t, it don’t. Goodbye.” Busch went on to reply “correct” when asked if securing a new deal was all about the sponsor, and responded “probably not” when asked if there was another landing spot for him if he couldn’t get something worked out with JGR. But anyone who wanted to know whether JGR would really let Busch go would have to “ask Joe Gibbs.”
At first glance, it seems absurd that Busch and JGR wouldn’t be able to come to terms. Busch’s 15 seasons with the organization have produced two championships and 56 wins to date. Not to mention that Busch, despite competing with a star-studded lineup of teammates over the years, has emerged as the face of JGR and Toyota in NASCAR. The Busch/Gibbs pairing has benefitted both parties tremendously over the years, and it feels like something that driver and team would want to keep intact.
But sometimes the seemingly absurd happens in NASCAR. Nobody thought Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards would ever leave Roush-Fenway Racing. The thought of Kevin Harvick driving for anyone other than Richard Childress was once unthinkable. Even as recently as last year, the idea of Brad Keselowski parting ways with Team Penske seemed crazy.
Taking those major driver moves into account, the question isn’t really whether or not Busch could leave but what might be the catalyst for his departure. Answering that question requires an examination of the factors that could lead Busch and JGR to a new deal… or drive them apart.
Busch’s comments indicate that sponsorship is the primary concern. With Mars, Inc./M&M’s set to leave at the end of this season, the No. 18 team will need a new primary backer. There is still plenty of time for JGR to find a company that can cover most of the season, despite Busch’s remark that he would like to have the matter already resolved. But can the team find a sponsor that is willing to match the price tag that a driver of Busch’s skill and experience commands? If not, JGR might have to seek a cheaper option for the driver of the No. 18.
From a competition standpoint, there is no better option for the No. 18 than retaining Busch. Gibbs is obviously aware of that. JGR had to learn the hard way with Kenseth and the No. 20 team what happens when you cut a veteran loose for a younger and cheaper but unproven driver. It seems hard to fathom that Gibbs would make the same mistake twice. But Busch’s comments are clearly putting pressure on JGR to find a sponsor and make a deal toward Busch’s liking.
The average fan may wonder why Busch is concerned at all with money. He has been blessed to have made more money than most people will ever hope to see. Yet it’s important to remember that racing is his profession, and it is simply human nature to want to maximize someone’s earning potential. Given everything that Busch has accomplished in his career, he has every right to push for a financial arrangement that meets those needs, whether that is at JGR or somewhere else.
Besides, Busch has value to JGR and especially Toyota beyond his driving skills. His Camping World Truck Series team, Kyle Busch Motorsports, is a major component of Toyota’s NASCAR development program. If Busch and JGR don’t come to terms, what happens to KBM? If he goes to a team aligned with a different manufacturer, doesn’t that mean Toyota would lose KBM?
Drivers do not typically race for one manufacturer in the Cup Series while owning a team in a lower division with a different manufacturer. Bobby Hamilton did it for four seasons, managing Bobby Hamilton Racing as a Dodge team while driving for Chevrolet operations like Morgan-McClure Motorsports and Andy Petree Racing in the Cup Series.
The difference was that BHR ran Dodges before the manufacturer’s re-entry into the Cup Series in 2001, allowing Hamilton a little more leeway to race for both brands. Twenty years later, the manufacturers tend to be pickier about where their drivers race, especially for somebody of Busch’s stature. It is hard to imagine that Toyota isn’t putting pressure on JGR to get a deal done.
Yet as much as sponsorship, money and the influence of manufacturers are important, competition matters too. Busch admitted that he does not see another landing spot for him in the Cup Series if things go wrong with JGR.
It’s hard to argue that point. Seeing Busch return to Hendrick Motorsports is completely far-fetched, especially with Hendrick’s current lineup set for the foreseeable future. There is no room for Busch at Team Penske unless the organization starts a fourth team, meaning Busch would not escape the sponsorship problem.
Stewart-Haas Racing will have a guaranteed opening next year with the retirement of Aric Almirola, but it remains to be seen if primary sponsor Smithfield will stick around. Remember that Smithfield has been a longtime supporter of Almirola largely because they like him as a spokesperson. Would the company be comfortable moving from the always-upbeat Almirola to the sometimes-cantankerous Busch?
Any other team Busch could go to would not be able to offer him equipment on the level of JGR. There are teams like 23XI Racing or Trackhouse Racing Team that have room to grow and investors with deep pockets who could guarantee Busch a big payday. But he may not have as much time to wait for those teams to improve as you might think.
Although not close to retirement in terms of calendar age, Busch has run over 600 Cup Series races during his career. Even great drivers tend not to win much after hitting that milestone. Busch needs a team that he can win races with right now, and his statement about possibly being “Brexton Busch’s truck driver” next year indicates an awareness that his only true options might be JGR or nothing.
If Busch gets left out of a ride in 2023, it would be embarrassing for NASCAR and a difficult loss for the sport. Love him or hate him, Busch is an exceptional driver and is clearly still capable of competing at a high level. The most likely outcome is that he returns to JGR with a new contract. But in terms of when and how that happens?
“Ask Joe Gibbs.”
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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