No one took the news harder than Busch himself, as he choked up explaining the news to onlookers in the media center. 2023 will be the first season without Busch running full time — or at least intending to — since 2000.
The news specified just a move away from full-time competition in 2023, but there’s a real possibility this might be it for him in terms of 36-race seasons.
Every driver has a fire to compete and win, and there will come a day where every elite driver has to call it a career. But given that competitive fire, everyone wants to exit on their own terms; no one wants to go out like this.
Busch’s 2022 season came to an abrupt halt after he was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms following a July 23 qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway, and he has yet to be cleared for racing nearly five months later. But make no mistake, Busch wants to be back. And if he is cleared for 2023, he has announced his intentions to run a part-time schedule with 23XI Racing.
Before an abrupt end to the 2022 season after 20 races, Busch’s highlight of the year was a dominating win at Kansas Speedway on May 15. It was his first victory at the track, the 34th of his career and the first win for 23XI in a race that went the full distance.
But even that doesn’t encapsulate how monumental of a win it was. Upon taking the checkered flag, Busch became the first driver to win a Cup race for Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet and Toyota, the prominent manufacturers of 21st-century NASCAR. And by virtue of winning in May 2022, Busch became just one of eight drivers in Cup history to have a 20-year span of wins, as his Kansas triumph came 20 years and 52 days after his maiden Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 24, 2002.
23XI marked the fifth team he had won a Cup race with, and of all the drivers to make their Cup debut after the beginning of the series’ modern era in 1972, only Ricky Rudd won for more teams (six) than Busch.
In many ways, the two drivers shared numerous similarities throughout their careers. Rudd never scored more than two wins in a single season, but he was a winning threat for nearly two decades. From 1983 to 2002, Rudd scored 23 wins across a span of 20 seasons; he won at least one race in 18 of the 20.
After leaving RFK Racing in a five-year Cup tenure that saw him win 14 races and the 2004 championship, Busch’s performance from 2006 onward bears a striking resemblance to Rudd: from 2006 to 2022, Busch scored 20 wins across a span of 17 seasons. He won at least one race in 15 of the 17.
It didn’t matter what year it was and what team Busch was driving for; he was a winning threat in just about every season of his career. And if his full-time driving career hadn’t been cut short by injuries, there’s no telling how much further he could go. If Kansas was any indication, he had what it took to compete well into his 40s at stock-car racing’s highest level.
But even if Kansas proves to be his final Cup triumph, Busch has left behind a legacy that will make him a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer. He won 34 Cup races in 776 career starts, good enough for 25th all time. He beat Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson — two of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time — to win the 2004 championship at age 26.
The milestones only continued from there, as he won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2010 and added a Daytona 500 crown in 2017. He scored a victory in his hometown of Las Vegas in 2020, and he had memorable wins against his brother Kyle Busch at Kentucky Speedway in 2019 and Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2021.
And while Kurt Busch looked poised to carve out long careers with both RFK and Team Penske in the first decade of his career, his on- and off-track antics soured the relationships and led to early dismissals. But that was just a small misstep for Busch, as he worked his way back up and returned to victory lane with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Busch reinvented himself after parting ways with Penske and Phoenix Racing in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and he went from one of the most polarizing drivers of the 2000s and early 2010s to a highly respected and celebrated elder statesman by 2022.
Busch will be greatly missed on the track in 2023, and in many ways, he represented one of the final links to a bygone era of NASCAR. Busch was the last remaining full-time driver to have won a championship in the 2000s, and he is the lone active Cup driver to have competed against Dale Earnhardt. And with Busch’s full-time retirement, Kevin Harvick is now the lone full-time driver to have done so before the 2005 season.
His full-time driving career could be over, but his legacy is not; far from it. Busch has been a regular guest in the FOX booth for NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races since 2020, while 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin has lauded Busch and credited his driving and knowledge for 23XI’s breakout 2022 season.
Busch has options for 2023 and beyond, and whether it’s part-time driving, commentary, garage work or a combination of all three (or even a return to a full-time schedule, should he choose), he will continue to leave his mark in NASCAR’s highest levels for the foreseeable future.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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