Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Kurt Busch making most of transitional year, building with 23XI and giving Ganassi a proper send-off

When Kurt Busch unveiled the news of a change in rides and manufacturers for the 2022 season, the quick-hit video reel included the tagline: “And you thought I was leaving.”

There’s a slight sense of defiance there — toward the odds, his age (43) and the conventional wisdom that says the former Cup Series champion is ready for the rocking-chair set. And while he has fewer driving years ahead of him than the nearly 21 seasons he’s already invested at NASCAR’s top level, Busch remains sought-after — by the 23XI Racing team that snapped him up, by broadcast partners who value his insight, and by crew chiefs past and present who are buzzing his phone for a chance to work with him.

RELATED: Playoff standings | Bristol weekend schedule

Think he was leaving? Kurt Busch retirement rumors have been an annual tradition in recent years, but he hasn’t hung up his driving shoes yet.

“You know, it’s all a matter of the right timing and feeling everything come together for the right reasoning,” Busch told NASCAR.com. “And in all honesty, I didn’t know where I was going to end up in 2022, and Monster Energy has been a fantastic sponsor, partner. I feel like I’m part of their family when it comes to different events and working with all the different athletes around the world. So it’s a fun vibe, and the opportunity came together through Toyota. And Toyota was looking for a veteran to start up a second car with Michael Jordan’s team and Denny Hamlin and everybody at 23XI. And so when the phone kept ringing, it all made for the right timing, if you know what I mean.

“Again, it was something that I didn’t set out to do. I didn’t know where things would end up, and so there’s been a lot of hardcore fans that are like, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave! We’d love you out there.’ My objective has been to race the Next Gen car all along, so it all works pretty good. Then there were some people, like, ‘Oh, he’s done, you know, this whole video of flying off into the sunset. He’s out.’ And so I’m glad it all worked out.”

There are still plenty of career opportunities at play for Busch in this transitional year to the next, but the more immediate task comes in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the final race in the postseason’s opening Round of 16. Four drivers will be booted from the Cup Series Playoffs field, and the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 Chevrolet is deadlocked with Alex Bowman in the 12th and final spot ahead of the elimination line.

Busch opened the playoffs with a respectable sixth-place finish at Darlington, and he was running among the top five before a downed tire crashed him out of Richmond with a last-place result. There’s consolation to be found in the schedule, which arrives this weekend at one of Busch’s most favorable haunts at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Tennessee short track where he’s won six times in the Cup Series.

“Oh, 100%. I like Bristol, it’s one of my favorite tracks, and it’s a place that … it’s a comfort zone for me,” Busch says. “And I feel like this is the part of the schedule of this happening, it’s perfect. For us, we just need a nice, solid run. We’re racing the guys that are on the bubble, but at one of my best tracks and where our cars have been running good. Right now, the Ganassi cars have been running good. This is our chance to capitalize.”

RELATED: Who joins Kurt Busch on the bubble?

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

The mutual effort from Chip Ganassi Racing has come in the wake of the organization’s announcement that its NASCAR operations will be shuttered after the 2021 season. Busch will join 23XI in its expansion effort to a two-car team next year, and teammate Ross Chastain has landed with Trackhouse Racing, which announced a purchase of CGR’s NASCAR assets in June.

The ride may be ending soon for Chip Ganassi Racing, but recent performance suggests the organization isn’t going out with a whimper. Busch won in Atlanta less than two weeks after the news dropped, and Chastain has been the top finisher among non-playoff drivers in the last two races, establishing his No. 42 team as a prime candidate to play postseason spoiler.

MORE: Pit-crew roster restored for CGR

Instead of playing out the string in a farewell season, Busch said all aspects of the Ganassi team have pulled together — not just to finish out strong, but to show their skills in an audition for potential new roles in 2022. “It seems like an all-in type of effort from everybody,” Busch says.

The other side of the dual focus is on assembling the new No. 45 Toyota team at 23XI, and Busch said his phone continues to ring with folks who want in on the organization’s growth. Among them are prospective crew chiefs, though Busch said this week that he’s still hopeful that his successful partnership with signal-caller Matt McCall might continue for a fourth season.

“It’s been another job title so to speak, and one that I’m embracing,” Busch says. “I really enjoy this aspect of building a team from scratch and finding the right personnel to go into the right spots and respecting the system that’s already in place at 23XI, but also seeing how fast it’s growing and how fast things are ramping up. It’s been great, so whether it’s a crew chief, a spotter, lead engineer — there’s so many positions, and even pit-crew guys, man, just all over the board at that we’re trying to assemble like puzzle pieces.”

The other jigsaw component to Busch’s career twilight is his broadcasting interests. He’s in the booth as an analyst for FOX Sports throughout the Camping World Truck Series Playoffs, and has provided guest commentary for the network’s Xfinity Series coverage and for MRN Radio.

When the long-rumored day — someday — that Busch’s driving career comes to a close, the possibility of transitioning to an on-air role could be the next natural landing spot.

“It’s another bridge that has opened up, and I’m thankful to have the opportunity with FOX Sports to call the Truck Series races in the playoffs,” Busch says. “You know, it feels like I’m giving back to the series that gave me so much when I first started out in NASCAR. And so it’s good to get the reps, it’s good to understand the production. As far as the respect of Vince (Welch), the main host, Michael Waltrip, the whole gang behind the scenes putting off the production, it’s neat to be part of it behind the scenes. And that way if I’m moving into the booth later on for Cup Series stuff, for Xfinity, whatever it may be — it could be another Supercross event or X Games — I just have a better understanding now of how the whole operation works.”