INDIANAPOLIS – During his ongoing free agency saga that has morphed into possibly the biggest story of the NASCAR season, Kyle Busch has confirmed talks with other teams without specifying which.
Some candidates are abundantly clear: Stewart-Haas Racing and its No. 10 vacancies. Richard Childress Racing and its lame-duck No. 8. Others are a little less obvious.
Would Trackhouse Racing slide him into a third car with another charter? Could Kaulig Racing put him in its full-time (but with a rotating lineup) No. 16? Does Petty GMS make a power play to team him with Eric Jones (whom Busch discovered at the Snowball Derby nearly a decade ago)?
Those are all Cup Series teams, though.
If Busch is serious about exploring all his options after 15 seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, his weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway should have included a trip through the back gate of Gasoline Alley and into the NTT IndyCar Series paddock.
Chip Ganassi tried to hire Busch to drive a Cup car 15 years ago (and was the runner-up of the intense bidding war that resulted in Busch leaving Hendrick Motorsports for Gibbs). Michael Andretti fielded a car in the 2014 Indy 500 for Kyle’s older brother, Kurt (who finished sixth as rookie of the year).
Zak Brown seems hell-bent on bringing every driver in the world into the McLaren Racing fold.
IndyCar’s Silly Season is in full swing, and Busch should have no problem commanding an audience of suitors interested in his talents whether for a one-off Indy 500 entry or a schedule of multiple races.
The idea of Busch racing beyond NASCAR once seemed unfathomable.
But as the 2022 Cup season unfolds without a multiyear, big-salary contract for Busch, it should be looming as a greater possibility than ever – which the two-time series champion acknowledged for the first time Saturday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Somebody said, ‘Maybe you should go and do the (Kyle) Larson tour,'” Busch said in response to a question from NBC Sports about whether his uncertain future could lead outside NASCAR. “Go run Late Models, dirt cars, IMSA, Indy. And it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ That just seems to add a new element to everything.
“And that’s probably the farthest down on my list that I’d entertain but certainly wouldn’t leave it out.”
Although it is understandable why he has trouble wrapping his head around it, Busch should do more than entertain the concept.
Leaving NASCAR should be a primary option for many reasons.
Aside from a Daytona 500 victory, there isn’t much left for Busch, 37, to accomplish in the Cup. His first-ballot Hall of Fame election is already secured. His versatility – 200 victories across the top three national series – is legendary.
Since the current knockout playoff format was introduced in 2014, winning a title in some ways has become more arbitrary than ever (witness the final pit stop that determined last year’s champion despite Kyle Larson having the third-or fourth-fastest car in the Phoenix title race).
Busch is all about chasing records, but he is never getting to seven championships and once you become a multiple champion, what’s really the difference between having two, four or six? He will always be short of the holy trinity of Earnhardt, Petty and Johnson, and his five championship round appearances will be remembered for his elite consistency.
Consider the options if Busch elected to remain in NASCAR (and likely drive for millions less, at least in the short term).
He can give Gibbs a home-team discount (maybe in a one-year “bridge” to a longer extension), but there are some aspects of his relationship to the team that seem to have been permanently altered through the process of taking several months to re-sign.
Ty Gibbs has emerged as a surefire future star, and his inevitable promotion to Cup will continue to linger in the background even if Busch stays on (particularly on a one-year deal), and Joe Gibbs’ grandson spends another year in Xfinity. The parlor games will begin anew next January about the futures of Martin Truex Jr. and Busch and slotting Ty Gibbs into one of their cars for 2024.
The teenager’s emergence has been among the confluence of extenuating circumstances that have left Busch clearly agitated at times during contract talks that have dragged on months longer than anyone could have wanted.
It certainly isn’t Busch’s fault (nor Gibbs’ to some degree, that potential sponsors have fallen through amid recent economic turbulence and the ongoing reset of superstar driver salaries in NASCAR. But the team also had been informed of Mars Inc.’s departure long before the 2022 season and still was unable to line anything up.
The most attractive option for Kyle Busch is Stewart-Haas Racing. Kevin Harvick’s welcoming comments Saturday indicated it could be a good fit, and Gene Haas’ deep pockets could also solve the problem of Busch being forced below his perceived market value. But given SHR’s performance since last season (and the current state of Ford Mustangs in Cup), it wouldn’t be a lateral move.
As Harvick alluded, Busch is a franchise driver who singlehandedly could raise the team’s game, but it would likely take at least a year to get him acclimated, and Busch is nearing the backside of his career prime.
The same problem holds true for the host of other midlevel teams that would love to bring in Busch as a superstar to attract talented engineers and team members from NASCAR’s powerhouses.
Busch might have the knowledge and talent to lead a rebuilding project, but does the self-proclaimed “KFB” have the patience or temperament, especially in his late 30s? (Ask Brad Keselowski how that’s going in Year 1 as a driver-owner with RFK Racing.)
“Rowdy” is about showcasing his ability to race anything, anywhere and always leaving a mark.
There’s never been a better time to do that than now for Busch, who has openly talked about wanting to race the Indy 500 (a deal was denied by Gibbs in 2017) and run for the overall prototype win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The racing world suddenly can be his oyster, and if he takes the bold step of seriously exploring it, Busch might find the opportunities even more limitless in interest from series (never mind just teams).
IndyCar has made multiple runs at a crossover for him, and Roger Penske (who has hinted at a future Indy 500 for Kyle Larson) would certainly like to have Busch racing the Brickyard in May. It’s easy to imagine a dirt series such as the World of Outlaws bending over backward to help arrange his passage to prestigious events such as the Knoxville Nationals.
The ship has sailed on Formula One, but Busch has long been talked about in international circles as having the makeup to race globally. With next year’s synergy of IMSA and the World Endurance Championship amid the massive influx of manufacturer cash into sports cars, unexpected doors could open beyond the Rolex 24 and Le Mans.
This could be the supercharged version of The Kyle Larson Tour that captivated much of the racing world in 2020.
There could be one major hang-up: Money.
He has spoken often about the 50 families at Kyle Busch Motorsports depending on his truck series team to put food on the table, and Busch has also been known to live a little large himself. The upkeep on a 30,000-square-foot Lake Norman mansion is a lot easier with a Cup salary, and it’ll be hard to piece together enough from lesser series to make up the difference.
But he is already open to taking less in his next Gibbs deal. That indicates money might be less of an issue in any scenario, and there could also be creative new revenue streams outside NASCAR (lest we forget, Larson easily made seven figures selling dirt merch) for the largest lightning rod in the Cup Series.
Busch is the most transcendent driver NASCAR has – which is why it makes even more sense to look beyond stock cars for his next step.