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Up to Speed: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. & Joe Gibbs Racing at the Crossroads

Kyle Busch has battled through a summer of uncertainty.

Back in April, Busch made comments to the media indicating he and Joe Gibbs Racing had made little progress on a new contract. Although Busch’s frustration was evident, it felt like what he and JGR really needed was simply more time to find the right sponsor for the No. 18. Once they did, all of the details about Busch’s future would fall into place.

But that was four months ago and, in reality, few questions have been answered. Busch still doesn’t have a contract for next year. Gibbs has not found a suitable sponsor for the No. 18. Busch’s future remains very much in doubt. As hard as it might be to believe, Busch may not be competing with JGR next year. In fact, a Busch/Gibbs breakup in 2023 is starting to seem more likely than a reunion.

On Saturday, Aug. 20, Busch gave a candid interview about the factors he’s considered while working through his plans for next year. The entire clip is worth a listen, but it’s important to note here that Busch has been thinking about more than where he would be most competitive. Busch says that there is “a big change coming” for him and his family, and while he has opportunities available to keep racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, “it will not look the same as it has for the last 15 years.”

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If Busch were to leave the No. 18, it would truly be the end of an era at JGR. Busch’s presence on the team goes back to 2008, where he made an immediate impact by winning eight races that season. But it feels like the current era of JGR did not begin until a few years later, around 2013. Prior to that, Gibbs’ operation often looked like a rudderless ship. Busch and Denny Hamlin, then still two of the young guns in the Cup Series, were often fast but struggled to consistently perform well and keep their emotions in check.

It wasn’t until the arrival of 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and the introduction of the Gen 6 car that JGR began a steady rise in year-to-year performance. The continued development of Busch and Hamlin, combined with the veteran expertise of drivers like Kenseth and Carl Edwards, allowed JGR to overtake Hendrick Motorsports as the top team in NASCAR. Gibbs also helped to build satellite organization Furniture Row Racing into a title contender, and it won a championship of its own in 2017 with Martin Truex Jr.

Now, Joe Gibbs Racing and several of its drivers find themselves at a crossroads. Busch has been the organization’s flagship driver and the face of Toyota in NASCAR since winning his first championship in 2015, but he could be racing for another team — and manufacturer — by next season. Hamlin is now a team owner himself and undoubtedly has plans to grow his organization, 23XI Racing, which may occupy more and more of his time.

Truex has been a JGR driver since 2019 and remains a perennial contender, but he is in danger of missing the playoffs this year and also faces questions about his long-term future. He was reportedly considering stepping away from full-time driving at the end of this year. An announcement at the end of June confirmed that Truex would return for 2023, but his future beyond that remains murky.

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More concerning is that Truex is on the brink of missing the playoffs. With only one race left in the regular season, Truex would need to either win at Daytona International Speedway this weekend or make up 25 points on Ryan Blaney to clinch the final open spot in the playoffs. Truex has never won a superspeedway race in his Cup Series career, so it would appear that Blaney has the upper hand. If Truex is still considering retirement in the near future, it seems like a stressful battle for the playoffs might push him toward hanging up his helmet, especially if he gets left out.

Busch and Hamlin are locked into the playoffs, but 2022 has been no bed of roses for either. Hamlin has struggled with consistency and putting complete races together. Despite winning twice, he is only 14th in overall points heading to Daytona. Busch has free-fallen from second to ninth in overall points over the last 10 races. The latest disappointment for the No. 18 team was this past weekend at Watkins Glen International, when Busch spun out with 17 laps to go and smacked the ARMCO barrier. The spin and resulting damage left him with a 32nd-place finish. Considering the struggles of the veterans, Gibbs’ strongest driver right now may be relative newcomer Christopher Bell.

Nevertheless, there is no substitute in NASCAR for experience. If Busch, Hamlin and Truex were all to leave Joe Gibbs’ team in the next few years, it would be next to impossible to replace them all without suffering a downturn in performance.

It seems that Ty Gibbs, Joe’s grandson, is destined to wind up on the Cup Series team in the future, even as soon as next year if Busch leaves. But as fast as the younger Gibbs is in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, he is still very young and very inexperienced. You would think that Joe Gibbs should have learned from past issues with Busch and a teenaged Joey Logano that building a Cup Series team around inexperienced drivers in their early 20s is a bad bet.

Likewise, Gibbs clearly overlooked the value that Kenseth brought to his organization when the team released him in 2017. Losing Kenseth had a negative impact on JGR as a whole, and Erik Jones, his replacement, simply did not have the skills developed to fill Kenseth’s role. Likewise, how could Ty Gibbs, or any young driver in NASCAR, be expected to fill Busch’s role at JGR?

Unless JGR can cobble together a suitable deal for Busch at the last minute, a big change will be coming for both parties. For his part, Busch is right to be concerned about how a potential move might impact factors like his competitive ability, salary, business interests and time with his family.

But JGR has more to lose from a split with Busch than Busch himself does. If Busch leaves, JGR loses its only multi-time champion, its best driver, the face of the team and the provider of its Camping World Truck Series developmental team. No new hire can replace all that, and certainly not the team owner’s 19-year-old grandson.

A breakup between Busch and JGR just feels like an admission of defeat by Gibbs and Toyota. Sponsorship aside, everyone at the JGR shop should be well aware of the value that Busch brings to the team on and off the track. If he winds up racing elsewhere in 2023, JGR’s rebuilding phase will have to begin, and its decade of ascendance will have come to a definitive end.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

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kb

Gibbs chews them up and spits them out, imo. From the young development driver on up. Why is this shocking to anyone? Not a nice bunch, my opinion. Logano landed upward, most don’t. I remember years ago JD being a shall we say a not nice guy in a particular instance, and Joe at least at that time had some compassion. Something simple which showed JD’s callousness at that time. I forget the nuts and bolts, but that always stuck with me, so many years later.

Bill B

I still won’t believe Busch is leaving JGR until it is final. I think it’s all going to be worked out before the season ends. I hope I am wrong. I’d love to see the JGR boat rocked.

johndawgchapman

I was very disappointed when he fired Kenseth. Now, not much from that bunch would surprise me. Now Busch might regret intentionally being such a polarizing figure. Maybe the tears he’s wiping might be a little more real.

I always suspected that he was at least in part, a front with KBM. So maybe with little more than a name change, it will continue.

Charlie

Nice detailed recap and view.
I hate it when this happens but let’s “check into the future.” (Fans do it all the time. Here, I apply some “prognostication.” Note, the opposite will probably happen.)
Kyle Bush ends up at Stewart-Haas, possibly in the 41. (go with me here, I know the elder Custer runs the show)
Instead of a truck team he moves Ford’s Xfinity program to Kyle Bush motorsports.
Voila, a place and manufacturer solved.
Like I said, with my prognosticating skills, bet the OPPOSITE!

RacFan45

Kyle should pick his new team based strictly on his chance to win in future. The fate of his truck team and the very uncertain dream of sharing a ride with his currently seven-year-old son a decade or more down the road are two factors unnecessarily diverting his attention. He should sell the truck team, a probable money pit for any new owner, to whoever wants it for driver development purposes and focus on his driving as his career winds down. In baseball, it is called keeping your eye on the ball. Kyle should study the fate of other aging NASCAR drivers to avoid their mistakes; Father Time remains undefeated. While Kyle and Richard Childress have had issues before, RCR might be his best bet as a driver for next season.

Tim

Where ever Kyle ends up he will land on his feet …On the other hand Joe Gibbs will struggle to find a driver of Kyles caliper …That will leave Denny and little Gibbs there after next year plus two unknowns …I would say Gibbs will lose if he cant keep Kyle .

Betty

Might have known they would have “ole Bubba” in the picture!!!

John

Busch will end up with Kaulig Racing in 2023.

Bob Fornes

JGR losing one arrogant driver and replacing them with an inexperienced arrogant driver, ” because he’s the owner’s Grandson” doesn’t ‘t help anyone..team, sponsors or fans!!

Dale EarnHog

I guess winning races doesn’t help the team.

STEVE COSENTINO

My guess before todays news was Kaulig and KB trophy hunting in 2023. Now that Kurt Busch is basically done for 2022 if he retires would that open a seat for Kyle in the 45? Would Kyle mind having Denny as his boss? I think a move to 23XI would be awesome for everyone.

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