Last Friday’s news drop that Kurt Busch would be aligned with 23XI Racing next season came with all the compulsory trimmings — a glitzy video reveal, prime sponsor placement and — it turns out — new car number placement. It also turns out that the implications are far greater than a simple driver-team arrangement.
The ripple effects of that Silly Season announcement are still being felt. Busch will have all-new surroundings for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series campaign, with a support staff still to be assembled around him. A car number that had quietly been out of circulation since 2008 will return, and a mending of fences between long-ago rivals made it happen. And the Joe Gibbs Racing competition meetings with 23XI will have twice the Busches involved next year, a development that both brothers were able to joke about last weekend.
“I don’t know if all the people in the room are going to be ready for two Busches,” Kurt said. “It’ll be fun.”
What we know for now is that the elder Busch will drive the No. 45 Toyota in 2022, marking the fourth manufacturer he’s represented in his well-traveled Cup Series career. His long-running association with Monster Energy will continue with 23XI Racing, which will expand to a two-car outfit next year with Bubba Wallace returning in the No. 23 entry. Other details have yet to be announced, including his crew chief and spotter for next season.
Busch has been paired with Matt McCall atop the pit box since he joined Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019. The Ganassi team’s sale to Trackhouse has McCall without an announced deal for next year, but Busch indicated that keeping their driver-crew chief chemistry intact would be his top choice. Busch also said that spotter Tyler Green will be changing places next season, moving to Wood Brothers Racing to pair with rookie Harrison Burton in 2022.
Busch has had his share of well-wishers since Friday’s announcement, but he’s also heard from plenty of people who want in on what 23XI is building.
“The biggest thing, my phone’s blowing up with congratulatory texts and e-mails and such, but there’s so many in there that are looking for a job,” Busch said before Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. “So many people are wanting to be part of this now, and that’s the next step for me that I have to embrace and digest it the right way. I’m not in ownership within the team, but I asked for a role to have a good influence with the program and so it’s filtering through a lot of quality people right now.”
The team’s new number is also set, and 23XI will field Cup Series cars with Nos. 23 and 45 — both jersey numbers that team co-owner Michael Jordan wore in his NBA career. The No. 45 had special sentiment for Jordan, who also used it during his brief stint in minor-league baseball, but it still held a heartfelt connection to Kyle Petty, whose son Adam used that car number before his death in a crash during the 2000 season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kyle Petty adopted that car number as his own shortly thereafter, and has frequently worn a cap with a black band through the No. 45 in remembrance. The number remained in the Petty Enterprises team’s possession until Petty’s driving career ended after the 2008 season. When Hamlin first expressed interest in the car number for 23XI’s expansion, he said NASCAR officials told him it would be a good idea to consult Petty before formally applying for it.
Hamlin said he wasn’t sure how that conversation would go. The two sparred in 2007 after a crash at Dover International Speedway, with Petty capping a verbal confrontation by smacking Hamlin’s helmet visor in disgust. More recently, Hamlin has sometimes bristled at Petty’s remarks in his role as an NBC Sports analyst. Last weekend, Hamlin expressed gratitude toward Petty for offering his blessing in bringing the No. 45 back, both in their private conversation and in a public statement that Petty released after Friday’s announcement.
“I need to publicly thank Kyle more about his cooperation with us and, really, excitement for us to bring it back,” Hamlin said. “I was worried because I knew he was sentimentally tied to that number and for him to allow us to come back, because he was ultimately the guy who could say no and shut it all down, a big kudos to him for allowing us.”
As for Petty’s scrutiny from his TV role, Hamlin was able to broach it and smile about it in his retelling later. “We had a conversation afterward and it was like, ‘I think you think I’m tough on you.’ I’m like, ‘no, I just want a fair shake now and then,’ but I appreciate him when we talked. He’s like, ‘listen, I just hold you to a higher regard than I hold everyone else,’ so I can appreciate that as well.”
The new dynamic for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Monday morning team meetings is a whole other component. The Busch brothers haven’t worked this closely together since their 2012 venture into the Xfinity Series together, and 23XI Racing’s affiliation with JGR and the Toyota camp should rekindle that working relationship.
But will those collective weekly meetings go from Rowdy to rowdier? Kurt Busch suggested the organization wasn’t ready for double the Busches, and Kyle agreed.
“No, they’re not,” he said to laughter at Daytona. “I already told Joe (Gibbs) that. I said, ‘Do not give him a key.’ Hopefully he just has to call in and we can put him on mute when we need to.”