Sunday’s (March 26) NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas was a weird one.
Sure, there were endless green-white-checkered finish attempts, which you’ll get when visiting a road course with a turn 1 the size of the Grand Canyon.
Then the last lap happened.
With the sun setting on Austin, Texas, 23XI Racing officially began its third chapter.
Which is an odd thing to say about a NASCAR team that’s only existed for two seasons and some change.
But that’s the reality of it.
As Tyler Reddick ran away from the competition to earn his first win with the team, we got a reminder about what led us to the moment.
“It’s amazing, 23XI (Racing) and how fast we’re growing and how much we’re doing together,” Kurt Busch said, roughly nine months after his full-time Cup career ended due to a concussion. “It’s forward, together, on this program. It brings me a little bit, choked up.
“I was hoping to be back in that car. But it’s in good hands, and it’s a great team and I love racing with those guys.”
Perhaps that was the weirdest moment Sunday.
Watching Reddick, having been whisked away from Richard Childress Racing in a surprise signing in the middle of 2022, celebrating on COTA’s frontstretch in Busch’s old number and the iconic flat black Monster Energy scheme we’ve associated with Busch for the last decade.
Yes, Bubba Wallace won in the No. 45 at Kansas Speedway last year, but that was the result of a simple number swap.
On Sunday, that was Busch’s team. His sponsor. His number.
It’s been obvious for a while what 23XI Racing means to Busch.
Last May, he claimed what’s currently his 34th and final Cup win in a No. 45 car sponsor by the Air Jordan brand.
After the race, team co-owner Denny Hamlin said “Certainly, there’s been no win that I’ve had that has equaled the emotions of this one, for sure.”
When I asked Busch about Hamlin’s comment, he became surprisingly emotional in a way I don’t recall ever seeing him before.
Looking back at the column I wrote then, the first quote I included from Busch was him acknowledging “I know I’m in the twilight of my career.”
The Pocono wreck he’d suffer his concussion in was only nine weeks away.
Busch didn’t have to stick around.
After it was obvious he wouldn’t be medically cleared to return last year, the 2004 Cup champion could have gotten out of dodge and never looked back.
He didn’t have to remain in a quasi-leadership role at 23XI Racing to help guide it into the future.
He definitely didn’t have to take the time to take Hamlin’s daughters out for ice cream at some point last year, as Hamlin detailed on his podcast this week.
But Busch did. And the sport’s better for it.
“He’s just such a great person, beyond anything,” Hamlin said. “He’s a great teammate. He helped us build that (No.) 45 team. “
Hamlin recalled a conversation with Monster Energy executives at the home of team co-owner Michael Jordan. The goal of it was to convince them to keep sponsoring the No. 45 with Reddick behind the wheel.
“‘I believe in this kid, and if you want to stick around, I think that you could be part of something great with him,'” Hamlin remembered saying. “They did, thankfully, and to get them a win was great. This was all facilitated by Kurt Busch. And this team was built around Kurt Busch.
“When you hear him talking about ‘I really wanted to be in this car,’ he does. He still loves racing, and you see how active he is. Going and being on pit lane during practices and qualifying, just giving any of our drivers a little bit of information that they might be able to use to be better, giving our crew chiefs information of things that he sees that maybe they’re not looking at.
“Such a valuable part of our team and such a great teammate. He’s just the best. He is the best dude.”
In the end, after only six races together, and with Busch still along for the ride, it’s paying off.
Reddick’s win — the fourth of his career and his third on a road course — is the earliest yet for 23XI Racing in a season.
“It’s why I went after (Reddick) as early as I did,” Hamlin said after the race. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.
“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”
While he was talking about Reddick, it sounds like he could have been describing his predecessor two decades ago.
2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com.
The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.
You can email him at email@example.com.
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