Race Weekend Central

How a Number & Kind Gesture Deepened Kyle Petty’s Bond With Kurt Busch

Two drivers from vastly different backgrounds.

One, the son of arguably NASCAR’s greatest racer, who has blazed a unique path of his own. The other, one who grew up on the opposite end of the country, polarizing the NASCAR world for several years before becoming one of its most respected.

Kyle Petty and Kurt Busch began their careers in different eras, yet the longevity of Petty’s career overlapped the commencement of Busch’s.

Petty was in the twilight of his driving days when Busch burst through to win the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series title. As Petty phased out of driving, Busch’s several temperamental moments overshadowed his talent at times in his young career.

Flash forward nearly two decades and Busch recently closed the book on what became one of the most esteemed careers of the 21st century. His retirement came a year removed from a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway which gave him a concussion from which he still has not fully recovered.

However, the 2022 season was not totally lost. Just 13 races into a season with a new team in 23XI Racing, Busch won at Kansas Speedway, giving the No. 45 its first win since 1964.

But more than the win history of the number was the significance it carried for the Petty family.

Recently, Petty posted a photo on social media of him and Busch, as Busch had given Petty a replica trophy and the checkered flag from his Kansas win.

The gesture displayed a unique link between the two. The No. 45 was carried by Petty’s son, Adam, who perished in a practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway more than 23 years ago.

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Busch had Petty sit down for an interview at his garage, where he presented the trophy to Petty. Frontstretch talked to Petty about how it came together, and if the encounter was planned.

“Totally surprised,” Petty told Frontstretch. Here’s the thing: I have a tendency to run my mouth on TV and talk about people, and I have a tendency to make people mad at me at times. So Kurt had a guy call me and he said, ‘Hey, Kurt would really like to sit down and talk to you about a couple of things.’ And I said sure, what have I done now? It just so happened he asked if I could stop up at Kurt’s place in Mooresville, and it just so happened I was going to be out there. Everything just kind of came together in one day. …

“We walked in, and he said, ‘I want to do a little interview with you, I’m trying to do some new stuff,’ and he kind of laid it out. [The Kansas trophy] is sitting between us and I didn’t even notice it. It was sitting on a table the whole time I had walked in, because it was kind of sitting towards the back a little bit between us. When he unveiled it, it took my breath away. I had no idea this is what Kurt Busch was going to do.”

The notion of Busch’s act was full of emotion for Petty.

“It is hard to put into words,” Petty said. “It is incredibly humbling.”

Busch’s victory at Kansas did not begin that particular connection with Petty, it was just an added incentive to the emotions of the No. 45’s return.

“[23XI Racing] ended up with the 45 number, and Denny [Hamlin, 23XI co-owner] called me. I talked to Austin and Montgomery Lee [Petty], Adam’s sister and brother, and they said sure, what a great opportunity to bring it back with a team that can win races and be competitive. … It’s special to Michael Jordan [23XI co-owner]. It was his baseball number, his dad’s baseball number. When you look at it, there’s lots of connections there.”

When Busch emerged victories at Kansas, it was a full-circle moment for Petty and his family, as the No. 45 was back in victory lane.

“For Kurt to win a race in [the No. 45] that fast, we were so emotional that day in Kansas. For Kurt to do this, it’s just mind-boggling. I melted inside when he said, ‘I want to give you this trophy and I want to give you the flag from the race.’ And I was like, man, you don’t have to. And he’s like, no, I had a replica made, and this is what it is.”

Adam would have turned 43 in July, just two years younger than Kurt. That made the connection even more special for Kyle.

“It’s very humbling, especially from guys like Kurt who were Adam’s age. Kurt’s only a couple of years older than what Adam would have been, and people forget that sometimes. It’s very humbling that they recognize what Adam was and what he meant to the sport, and really what my grandad [Lee], my dad {Richard], and myself have done with this sport.”

As fans and media members, it can be easy to focus solely on the competition aspect of our sport. But behind the scenes, bonds and friendships abound throughout the garage.

In this case, the moment brought together two drivers who had experienced a similar challenge in vastly different ways. One lost his son because of head injuries sustained in the crash, while the other had his career ended by a head injury. Yet, those tragic events only strengthened the bond between Busch and Petty.

“Here’s the thing, there’s always a bond between racecar drivers,” Petty answered in response to a question about that bond. “I think the bond with Kurt was strengthened by his injury because it was career-ending. It was something that he can’t control, something that he couldn’t avoid, something that happened, and now he has to deal with the consequences.

“In a lot of ways, that’s the same thing that happened to our family. It’s something we couldn’t control, it’s something that happened, and we’re left to deal with the consequences. So, I think there’s a tighter bond there. When [Busch] drove the 45, it only strengthened that bond. They’re a family of racers, he and Kyle, and his dad Tom and his mom. They grew up the same way in a lot of ways, just a different time, so there’s always going to be that bond. That bond was tighter, deeper and strengthened the way the world has played out.”

The significance behind the 45 runs deep for Petty. After Adam’s death, Kyle changed his number from 44 to the 45, a number he displayed the rest of his career. Most of the time when you saw him at the track, he was wearing a “45” hat.

“I pull for [the 45] no matter who drives it because it’s the No. 45. I grew up with the No. 40 as a part of Petty Enterprises with Pete Hamilton. The No. 41, my uncle Maurice drove, Jim Paschal drove, Marvin Panch drove and so many great drivers. My granddaddy drove the 42, and I did too. My dad drove the 43 and I drove it one race. Then I drove the 44 and Adam had the 45. When Adam’s accident happened, I switched over to drive the 45.

“So those numbers, anytime those numbers win … when Ganassi’s car used to win with the 41, I was pumped up. But the 45 has always been me. I don’t care if in 100 years I was still around watching somebody drive a car, it would still be very emotional every time that car rolled into victory lane.”

One of Petty’s takeaways from his emotional interaction with Busch was what he thought it said about the 45-year-old.

“[The trophy presentation] was personal from Kurt. It wasn’t to be put in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t some public display. It was a moment that we shared. He taped this and asked, ‘Hey, do you mind if I put this up?’ And he waited five or six days before he put it up, he didn’t do it instantly, because that’s not what this moment was about. This moment was between two guys who drove, two guys that raced against each other, one of them had lost his son, and this was another one’s way to say, ‘I want to be part of the healing process.’ … He does things in quiet a lot of times, and I think this is who Kurt Busch really is.”

Neither Busch nor Adam got to end their careers on their own terms. Kyle had to endure something that is beyond imaginable. It shows how we don’t set our paths and you never know what a day will deliver. Yet, in the bleakness of those situations, a unique link was formed that joined two of the sport’s stars in an off-track way.

NASCAR is all about speed and erasing the nearest second. But off the track, those moments that force people to slow down can produce memories that truly go beyond the surface.

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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Kevin in SoCal

Awesome!

Johnny Cuda

Great story.

Carl D.

Once at Charlotte I witnessed Kyle Petty admonish a reporter for interrupting Kyle when he was signing autographs for some children. Instant respect.

JJ

Nice!

Patsy

Race car drivers race for wins and trophies. This shows people the other side that public hardly hears about. I’m glad to say I love ❤️ NASCAR

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