Column: Kyle Busch out to prove he is still best in NASCAR

Published 11:55 pm Monday, February 27, 2023

By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE — Call him Kyle Busch, call him by one of his nicknames or call him the most prolific active driver in NASCAR.

No matter the moniker, “KFB” needed just three starts to get back to victory lane with his new employer. Busch finished third in NASCAR’s preseason exhibition race and was the leader on the scheduled final lap of the Daytona 500 before the race went to double overtime.

At race three, on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Busch scored his first win in his new No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. It snapped a 28-race skid, came at the site of his first career Cup Series win in 2005 and was a victory in his 19th consecutive season, breaking a record he shared with Richard Petty.

By all indications, Busch’s fast start with RCR hould be problematic to his challengers. If they’ve got a problem with what very well might be a season-long redemption tour, they can take it up with Joe Gibbs and Austin Dillon.

It was Gibbs who after 15 seasons allowed Busch to hit the free agent market because longtime sponsor M&M’s was leaving NASCAR. And it was Dillon who persuaded Childress, his grandfather, to bring Busch over to fledgling RCR.

Mind you, Busch didn’t have a ton of options when it became clear that his time in the No. 18 Toyota had come to an end. Tyler Reddick showed last year that RCR had rebounded enough to win some races, but the reality is the Chevrolet team had won just eight total Cup races in eight years and its last Cup title was in 1994 with the late Dale Earnhardt.

Even so, Childress was willing to take on the driver he once tried to beat up for wrecking another RCR driver. Now “Rowdy” seems determined to disrupt NASCAR’s season.

Kyle Larson, who returned from a nearly yearlong suspension in 2021 to win 10 races and the Cup title while routing the competition, celebrated the win by his new Chevrolet teammate.

“The guy is one of the best race car drivers of all time and will always be,” Larson posted on Twitter after the race. “I’m glad it only took him 2 races to remind the world.”

Busch, a two-time Cup champion who with 61 wins — most of all active drivers — ranks ninth on NASCAR’s all-time list, has a clean slate with a new team eager to embrace him. Busch is one of the most technical and car savvy drivers, and he gives RCR and Chevrolet an immediate professor to help improve its cars. His 225 victories across all three NASCAR national series is a record.

With all that good comes the bad and the ugly.

His moodiness, sarcasm and propensity for landing himself in sticky situations doesn’t matter to Childress, who was only interested in hiring a winning driver. The fans seem OK with it, too: Busch has always been one of NASCAR’s most polarizing drivers but received a rousing ovation during his celebratory bows to the crowd.

“Rowdy Nation is growing, loud and proud. Watch out, we’re going to take over,” Busch said. “I would say that we need to continue on and pour the gas on the fire right now, and go out there and continue to get wins and have fast cars and run up front.”

There was swift backlash against JGR, which allowed Busch to leave when terms couldn’t be reached on a new contract. Joe Gibbs needed a sponsor for Busch, and Busch has admitted he not only turned down an early extension offer, but told Fox Sports before the Daytona 500 that he didn’t “feel comfortable” if Gibbs put his personal money into any deal to keep the driver.

Busch’s win at Fontana opened up a torrent of social media abuse against JGR, which former teammate Denny Hamlin responded to Monday on his podcast.

“Fans are having a field day with the JGR Twitter right now. ‘See, we told you.’ People have to understand Joe Gibbs wanted to sign Kyle Busch. They really tried, and they gave him a very, very good offer, but he did not want to take it,” Hamlin said.

“I see them all dragging JGR, and even if I’m unbiased here, this was a tough situation,” Hamlin continued. “It was a situation where they wanted him back. That company would cease to exist if they had to pay Kyle what he was demanding. Especially after losing (sponsor) Mars. It would be impossible.”

None of it matters at this stage to Busch, who publicly thanked Childress and his wife, Judy, for rescuing him when his career seemed at a dangerous crossroads.

“We’re making history, right?” Busch said. “I can’t say enough about Austin giving me a call, first and foremost, but then Richard and Judy giving me this opportunity to go out here and race for wins. It’s just been super, super rewarding so far each week to just be a part of the conversation and be in the mix.

“I hope that we’re able to repay them a lot over this year and the next few years to come before I decide it’s all said and done.”