Denny Hamlin: Kurt Busch’s future ‘will always be his decision’

Denny Hamlin in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage
Justin Casterline
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin said Friday that his 23XI Racing team did not influence Kurt Busch’s decision to withdraw his waiver for eligibility in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, adding that the team is doing its best to stoke morale in support of the veteran driver.

Hamlin’s remarks come one day after Busch’s announcement that he did not wish to take a spot on the 16-driver postseason grid if he was unable to compete for a championship. Busch has missed the last five races after suffering a head injury in qualifying at Pocono, and he will also miss Sunday morning’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (10 a.m. ET, CNBC, Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM), the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway.

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Busch had locked himself into a provisional playoff slot with a dominant win at Kansas Speedway in May. But Thursday, he indicated that he had not received medical clearance to return to competition.

“No, this is a Kurt thing. This is definitely not us by any means,” Hamlin said when asked about the impact of Busch’s absence to the playoff picture. “We’ve been very clear and transparent with Kurt that we’re going to support him no matter what. If he wants to stay in there and come in for the last race of the first round, like, let’s go. Let’s go try to win it. So he just felt like this is the best decision for him, you know, not to hold somebody else back from going for a championship that he thought maybe had a better chance at it. It’s still unknown whether he would be able to come back. So this is all Kurt’s decision, and his future will always be his decision.”

Busch joined 23XI Racing this season, as the team owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan expanded to a two-car operation. He arrived to the newly formed No. 45 Toyota team as a proven winner with 20-plus years of experience, adding a veteran presence alongside teammate Bubba Wallace. Xfinity Series regular Ty Gibbs has filled in admirably the last five weeks, and Hamlin indicated that Busch has been working with the 19-year-old prodigy, assisting the organization with his observations and contributions in team debriefs.

Hamlin related a similar instance when he missed four races early in the 2013 season, injuring his back in a crash at Auto Club Speedway. But he also said that Busch’s case is different, both because of the playoff implications and the nature of Busch’s injuries.

“The team and him just kept getting better, so that’s the tough part about it is we had so much momentum going with that 45 car before that happened,” Hamlin said. “So I mean, that part was tough, but it’s the only thing I can relate is to when I had to sit out races because my back injury in 2013. I mean, it sucked then, but for him, I mean, it’s nothing physical as far as like something that hurts. It’s just something that you know is not right in the brain. So, you know, that’s something that you got to have 100%. You can’t fake that part of it. The results will show your performance and anything else on the race track if your mind’s not right. I know he’s frustrated and emotional about it, and we just want to support them in any way we can and give him the time off that he needs to to get better.”

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Busch’s decision moved Martin Truex Jr. from provisionally out of the 16-driver field to a spot provisionally in. It also gave Ryan Blaney a measure of breathing room, pushing him from the “last driver in” position to 15th in the playoff picture with a 25-point buffer over Truex. If Sunday’s 400-miler produces a new winner who otherwise meets the playoff-eligible criteria — full-time, 30th or better in the Cup Series standings — it would bump out the low-points man between Blaney and Truex.

Foremost, though, Blaney spoke in terms of Busch’s competitive drive when asked if the move surprised him.

“As a competitor, you know him as a great competitor,” Blaney said. “You don’t want to ever stop doing what you love, in racing and making those tough choices. But it seems like he understood where he was at physically and didn’t think that he could get behind the wheel of a race car. So I mean, yeah, I bet that was one of the toughest choices he’s ever had to make in his professional career. I mean, you never want to be in that spot. That’s a terrible spot to be in. It stinks for him. So yeah, but that was really, really tough for them to make that choice.

“Like I said, you never want to see that as a competitor. You always want to race the guys and them be there all the time. But I bet that was really, really tough.”