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Up to Speed: The Next Chapter Begins for Kyle Busch

The dawn of a new NASCAR season brings fresh opportunities and challenges for every team in the NASCAR Cup Series field. But few drivers are entering 2023 with more uncertainty than Kyle Busch.

In one of the biggest stories of the past year, Busch’s 15-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing came to an end. The Busch/Gibbs pairing produced two championships and 56 wins during that time. However, JGR faced difficulties in finding a sponsor beyond 2022, one that would fill the void left by Mars Inc.’s impending departure.

Unable to secure a new contract with Gibbs’ team, Busch took a new deal with Richard Childress Racing to pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet. Ty Gibbs, Joe’s grandson, will fill Busch’s old seat at JGR, replacing the familiar No. 18 with No. 54, Ty’s number from the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

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Monster Energy Sponsoring Ty Gibbs for Majority of 2023 Cup Season

Although JGR’s search for a new sponsor began well over a year ago, the first hints that negotiations to re-sign Busch had stalled surfaced back in April of last year. At that time, it seemed absurd that Busch and JGR would not find some way to keep their relationship intact.

However, a sponsor to cover most of the season, as Mars had done, never materialized. In contrast, RCR was able to retain most of the sponsors on the No. 8 who supported Tyler Reddick. With Reddick making his own move to 23XI Racing a year earlier than initially planned, Busch simply slots into Reddick’s old team without RCR needing to seek a third charter.

Now that the negotiations, sponsorship deals, and logistics are all settled for 2023, Busch and Childress can turn their focus toward the competition side. Yet even for a well-established organization like RCR and a veteran driver like Busch, it is difficult to gauge how the No. 8 team will perform in 2023.

Childress’ team has not won a Cup Series championship since Dale Earnhardt’s final title in 1994. Kevin Harvick had a successful 13-year tenure with RCR, but even their best seasons together never resulted in a championship.

Once Harvick left, RCR experienced a long, slow fade through the remainder of the 2010s. Not only was Ryan Newman’s improbable playoff run in 2014 the last time an RCR Chevy made the Championship 4, it was also the last time an RCR driver finished inside the top 10 in points.

Busch’s professional life may be totally different in 2023, but you can bet there’s one thing that’s still the same: Busch hates losing. Signing with RCR may have given him secure sponsorship and a fatter contract. It could even give Busch’s son, Brexton, a pathway up the NASCAR ladder if his racing career continues to progress.

But during the time he drove for JGR, Busch won more Cup Series races than any other driver. Racing with JGR took Busch’s career to heights that only a select few in this sport have ever reached. Can he really expect to find that same level of success with RCR, a team that has largely struggled for the past decade? RCR’s lack of consistent speed post-Harvick would indicate that Busch is in for a rocky year.

However, the one factor we don’t know much about is how Busch will respond to his new environment. A two-time Cup champion, Busch is an experienced racer with wins on every type of track. Having that level of experience around with Busch still in his prime at age 37 could be the spark that reignites RCR and turns the team back into championship contenders.

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Kyle Busch Arrested in Mexico on Jan. 27

Just last year, there were a few signs that the tide may be turning in Childress’ favor. Reddick scored the first three wins of his Cup Series career in 2022. That was the first time any RCR driver had earned multiple wins in one season since Harvick in 2013. Austin Dillon also went to victory lane last year and posted a career-best five top fives in one season.

Losing Reddick is obviously going to be a tough blow for RCR, but Reddick’s breakout was not the only factor in the team’s improved performance. Childress’ operation really seemed to benefit from the Next Gen car and the reset it created in the competitive balance of the Cup Series.

Perhaps Busch views his move to RCR as a reset of his own. It’s not outrageous to think that he could use one. As much as Busch and JGR had a great run together, the last few years have not been up to the No. 18 team’s usual standard. In 2020, Busch did not win until the third-to-last race of the season after he had already been eliminated from the playoffs. This extended slump resulted in a shakeup that saw crew chief Adam Stevens and other key personnel from Busch’s 2019 championship run transferred over to the No. 20 car to work with newcomer Christopher Bell.

Busch carried on with a reorganized No. 18 team led by new crew chief Ben Beshore. In 2021, they earned just one more win and two more top 10s than Busch did in his last season with Stevens. Things only got worse in 2022. Busch earned eight top fives, his lowest for any season in his entire full-time career. His only win came in the Bristol Dirt Race when Reddick and Chase Briscoe tangled on the last lap, allowing Busch to slip past both of them and steal the victory.

The playoffs brought more misery for the No. 18 team. Busch dominated the Southern 500 until blowing an engine while leading under caution, sidelined with just 23 laps to go. An ill-handling car the next week at Kansas Speedway knocked Busch below the cut line going to Bristol Motor Speedway, where he had another blown engine just past halfway. For the first time in the history of the elimination-style playoffs, Busch failed to advance past the first round.

Losing Mars’ sponsorship may have been the catalyst for Busch’s breakup with JGR, but it was not the only factor at play. Considering the declining performance of the No. 18, the crew changes, the lack of wins, and the abysmal 2022 playoffs, Busch’s relationship with JGR may have reached its natural conclusion regardless of the sponsorship situation. Just like RCR, Busch needs a fresh start, and that is exactly what both parties can provide each other.

Sometimes new surroundings can do wonders for veteran drivers. Harvick won the Cup Series championship upon moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. The year before that, Matt Kenseth left Jack Roush’s team for JGR and scored a career-best seven wins in one season.

Busch has a great opportunity to follow in Harvick’s and Kenseth’s footsteps and show his old team exactly what they lost. If Busch drives with a chip on his shoulder in 2023, returning to his old form, more than just JGR will be sure to take notice.

Editor’s Note: After this article was written, news broke Monday (Feb. 5) Busch was arrested in Mexico last month and detained at an airport in that country for a handgun violation. NASCAR and RCR currently have no plans to discipline Busch, however, and the driver has publicly apologized.

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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