It was a wild week at Daytona International Speedway and as the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin this weekend at Darlington Raceway, many eyes are focused on the run for the championship. While the playoffs always provides intrigue, perhaps more captivating is that the biggest question mark for the 2023 Silly Season remains unanswered. That could lead to a major driver leaving an established organization that’s a top-tier contender to earn this year’s title.
Kyle Busch is still not under contract for 2023 and as the days continue to pass, it appears more and more unlikely that he will return to Joe Gibbs Racing for a 16th season.
That has us thinking: Will JGR be better off without Kyle Busch? Anthony Damcott and Amy Henderson debate.
JGR Needs Kyle Busch Badly
As much as JGR recognizes that resigning Kyle Busch should be top of its priority list, it’s possible the team doesn’t realize just how valuable he is to its organization.
If Toyota and JGR let Busch get away and sign elsewhere, it’s a losing situation for them all around. On the Cup level, it leaves a prestigiously open seat in a race-winning car. And filling that seat is not going to be as easy as people think. First, JGR needs to find someone with sponsorship, enough to sponsor a good majority of a full season.
That alone is hard to do without stealing another active driver from another race team. JGR could go after Tyler Reddick, but that’s only on the assumption Richard Childress is still angry about Reddick’s 23XI Racing announcement and decides to release him a year early. Other free agent drivers with sponsorship don’t have enough to last even half the season.
So the only realistic option JGR has at this juncture is to move someone up. But who? While Ty Gibbs is the obvious choice, Joe Gibbs has made it clear he would like to see his grandson run another full-time Xfinity Series season before moving up. Of course, plans always change, especially with Gibbs getting unexpected seat time at 23XI this season.
That’s pretty much the only option within JGR as Brandon Jones is too inexperienced to take that ride. Moving someone up straight from Busch’s Camping World Truck Series team wouldn’t be smart, not to mention impossible.
The reason it would be impossible leads to the second reason why JGR needs to do anything in their power to keep Busch. If he goes elsewhere, his truck team is going with him. That leaves Toyota with no development team in the Truck Series which, in turn, leaves no one for JGR to fill the No. 18 without pulling someone from another organization or taking a chance on a free agent. Both of these are tough to do, depending on who they would be targeting.
These consequences were talked about in a previous article on Frontstretch in a lot more detail, but it’s still relevant when talking about Busch’s contract situation. JGR and Toyota Racing Development are hopefully doing everything in their power to keep him. Otherwise, it is a complete losing situation for everyone involved (well, except maybe Busch, that is). –Anthony Damcott
The Game Has Changed, and It’s Time to Move On
He’s tied for ninth on the all-time win list and for the top win total among active drivers with 60. Across NASCAR’s three national series, he has an eye-popping 224 career victories. So what doesn’t Busch have?
A ride for next year.
Busch, who has been a virtual sure thing in Joe Gibbs Racing’s lineup since 2008, is on the verge of losing his ride with the team. In his first year with JGR, he showed why Gibbs had such faith in him with eight wins, one more than that year’s champion, Jimmie Johnson. Busch has taken JGR to victory lane at least once every year since.
But after longtime sponsor Mars pulled the plug on its NASCAR program at the end of the current season, JGR has struggled to find sponsorship for Busch. There could be any number of reasons for this problem. Maybe the team won’t accept a figure below a certain number and no suitor (or combination of them) has hit that magic number yet. Maybe Busch himself won’t accept a salary below a certain figure or he doesn’t want to sign a deal that hinges on sponsorship when none has materialized. It could be a combination of these or none of them at all.
Toyota certainly would like to keep Busch in the fold, but whatever the holdup is, Busch may be on the way out at JGR.
And that’s just fine.
Short-term, letting Busch go seems like a colossal mistake. He’s only 37 years old, in the back half of his prime perhaps, but still in it nonetheless. And he may have more raw talent than any driver in Cup right now.
He’s also been a great fit at JGR; the team has taken his volatile personality in stride. Busch was let go from Hendrick Motorsports in favor of Casey Mears because that personality is a big one and didn’t fit in the Hendrick culture. Gibbs embraced it and Busch thrived.
But it’s time to move on.
The team needs to look at the long game now. Busch got them to this point, and deserves accolades for that. He’d like to drive for several more years until he can share a ride with son Brexton in the Truck Series, and he’s certainly not too old for that goal to be outrageous.
Busch’s second and most recent Cup title came just three years ago, on the heels of a five-win 2019 campaign. But it’s hard to ignore that he has just four wins in 2020, 2021 and 2022 combined.
And while lady luck has sometimes dealt a terrible hand, Busch has struggled with the Next Gen car. It’s a scene we’ve seen played out plenty in the past: a great driver evolves with the car to win races and titles … until something changes and he doesn’t.
Busch certainly has more wins in him, but his annual total has dropped off. The next driver he’ll have to pass to move up the all-time list is Dale Earnhardt and his 76 wins. There was a time when Busch might reel off 16 of those victories in three years, maybe four, but now 76 seems like a stretch. He could bounce back, of course, but should JGR take that gamble?
Of course, a young, untested driver is a gamble, too. But at some point, all drivers age and need a replacement. While Busch may not be there quite yet, JGR (and by default, Toyota) has had to let talented drivers walk away because there was no room. At some point, they’ll pay for that.
Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs’ grandson and a driver who has shown a lot of talent, is waiting in the wings. He’s currently filling in at 23XI Racing for Kyle Busch’s injured older brother Kurt Busch.
Ty Gibbs hasn’t set the Cup world on fire. But in six races, he’s been an equal match for Kyle Busch.
Busch has finished ahead of Gibbs three times, with Gibbs on top in the other three. Neither has a win or a top five in that span. Busch has two top 10s and Gibbs has just one, but Gibbs’ average finish is almost three positions better (19.6 to Busch’s 22.2).
Ty Gibbs is also just 19 years old.
If Busch races until he’s 45, Gibbs would still be just 26, with decades ahead of him. Will he come close to Busch’s numbers in those years? Of course, there’s no way to know. He’s a promising prospect, but Busch is a proven champion.
Again, we’re looking at the long game here. Teams in virtually every sport go through a time when superstars move on and the team rebuilds for the future. JGR’s stable is aging at a time when its biggest rivals are trending much younger. That may benefit JGR now, but in a few years, the other teams will have younger veterans with the experience to win, and JGR will either have aging heroes or youngsters behind the curve.
Ty Gibbs would probably benefit from one more year in the Xfinity Series, but there is a certain wisdom in forgoing that to free the Xfinity ride to develop another youngster. Remember, the team is also likely going to need to replace Martin Truex Jr. in a year or two. It would also give the young Gibbs a year under his belt instead of having a pair of rookies and the mistakes that come with them.
In a perfect world, JGR would resign Busch to a one, maybe two-year contract and then bring a slightly older Ty Gibbs into the No. 18. But such a deal either hasn’t materialized or been accepted, and time grows short.
Joe Gibbs is no stranger to playing the long game, and it’s time to play it. Ten years from now, Busch will likely be retired from full-time Cup racing while Ty Gibbs won’t have even reached his prime.
Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing have a storied past. But it’s time to plan for the future. -Amy Henderson
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