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Opinion

Why retiring Kurt Busch's NASCAR career was defined by success and resilience

OPINION: Kurt Busch’s NASCAR career is now officially over. But the moments – both good and bad – that have come to define it will endure for many more years to come.

Race winner Kurt Busch, 23XI Racing, Jordan Brand Toyota Camry

On Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, Kurt Busch decided to publicly declare what many have suspected – he has competed in his last NASCAR event.

The 2004 Cup Series champion suffered a closed head injury in a wreck during qualifying at Pocono Raceway last July. He hasn't raced since, but has made sponsor and TV appearances while serving as a mentor for drivers Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick at 23XI Racing. This season both its cars have reached the playoffs for the first time in 23XI's short three-year history, with Wallace making the cut on points in the final race of the regular season at Daytona.

Busch joined Toyota outfit 23XI – co-owned by Cup driver Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan – for 2022 in what was going to be the final full-time Cup ride of his long career. And it was, only it did not end on the terms he envisioned. Still, as the 43-year-old has done his entire career, he remained steadfast that his final chapter has not yet been written speaking to media at Daytona.

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“I’m still wanting to get doctor approval and get cleared [to get back on a track]. That’s the first step,” he said. “That’s what I need to do personally, then I will have opportunities to talk to different motorsports teams and sponsors on doing other races.

“The perspective and taking a little step back from being in the car every week, the joy that I’ve found is that everything has slowed down for me to help analyse the data, to give advice to Bubba, to give advice to Tyler, the engineering staff, the team members at 23XI. It’s really neat to have all of this current knowledge and have the opportunity to digest it and give back to this team. That’s the short-term goal.”

While Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, has won more NASCAR races and championships, the elder Busch’s career has had far more ups and downs as well as twists and turns. Kurt joined what is now Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing in 2000, making his NASCAR national series debut in the Truck Series, where he won four races and was second in the series standings in his first year.

Busch’s talent was evident from the start and Roush wasted no time promoting him to Cup in 2001, bypassing the typical stop in the second-tier Xfinity Series. Busch had a rough rookie outing but won 11 races over the next three seasons, including the series championship in 2004 – the first year of NASCAR’s playoff system.

Busch won the Cup title in 2004 for Jack Roush, but was fired at the end of the following season

Busch won the Cup title in 2004 for Jack Roush, but was fired at the end of the following season

Photo by: Robert LeSieur / Motorsport Images

Just as Busch’s career potential was blasting off, it looked like it could come to a crashing halt. He was fired by Roush in November 2005 after being cited in an alcohol-related incident in Avondale (Arizona) for criminal recklessness and missed the final two races of the season. It would be the first of several off-track incidents that would shadow his successful driving career.

Busch landed on his feet and joined Team Penske for the 2006 season. He was a solid contributor, winning 10 races over the next six seasons.

But in December 2011, Penske released Busch, who had been fined $50,000 by NASCAR for a profanity-laced interview with a TV reporter and using an obscene gesture during the season finale race at Homestead. Again, Busch’s future seemed uncertain but, once more, he returned to drive another day.

Whatever off-track issues Busch has had – and there have been several – his talent was exceptional enough to produce repeated new – and often better – opportunities. In a sponsor-driven sport that has little appetite for off-track scandals, Busch’s long career speaks volumes

First, it was a season with owner James Finch and Phoenix Racing in 2012, which included a one-race suspension for verbally threatening a reporter. In 2013, he moved to the upstart Furniture Row Motorsports, then was tapped as driver for a new Cup team in 2014 at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he won six races over five seasons. This included the Daytona 500 in 2017.

It was also at SHR when Busch was briefly suspended in 2015 while under investigation for a domestic abuse incident in Delaware. Ultimately, he was not criminally charged and was reinstated.

In 2019, Busch and sponsor Monster Energy moved to Chip Ganassi Racing, where he won at least once each season before that team’s sale to Justin MarksTrackhouse Racing in 2021 put another cloud over Busch’s future.

But the new 23XI Racing outfit soon came calling and hired Busch to drive its newly created second Cup team as a team-mate for Wallace. He won his first race for the team in his 13th start at Atlanta but, just eight weeks later, Busch’s entire driving career was put in question following the qualifying wreck at Pocono.

Busch has reinvented himself multiple times, coming back from being fired by Penske to land a drive at SHR that yielded the biggest win of his career at Daytona in 2017

Busch has reinvented himself multiple times, coming back from being fired by Penske to land a drive at SHR that yielded the biggest win of his career at Daytona in 2017

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Whatever off-track issues Busch has had – and there have been several – his talent was exceptional enough to produce repeated new – and often better – opportunities. In a sponsor-driven sport that has little appetite for off-track scandals, Busch’s long career speaks volumes about him as a driver and a person. If some of his episodes took place today by a driver, it’s unlikely another opportunity in a top-level ride would materialise as quickly, if at all.

Busch’s ability to reinvent himself – including the role he played at each organisation along the way – is a testament to his legacy. When the chips were down, and his career in jeopardy on multiple occasions, Busch found a way to keep going. Even now, he has turned his experience with a concussion and his knowledge of racing into an important mentorship role at 23XI Racing.

That longevity is not lost on Busch.

“There are plenty of stories of fun, and wins and losses, thank you to NASCAR for giving me a fair shake at this,” he said. “There is a bunch of cool trophies at the house, lots of memories and I hope to give back in all of the ways I can moving forward.”

Busch’s career has been filled with fun, wins, controversy, championships and confrontations – all the ingredients that make NASCAR captivating to its fans. There remains another Busch brother in the Cup series for now, but Kurt’s NASCAR journey was a unique – and likely unmatched one – all on its own.

Busch's ride has been taken over by Reddick, but he remains involved in 23XI

Busch's ride has been taken over by Reddick, but he remains involved in 23XI

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

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