LAS VEGAS — “Look at … Kurt Busch – still as good as he’s ever been behind the wheel of a race car.”
The commentary from Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Busch’s qualifying run at Pocono Raceway still rings true.
But Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch announced his departure from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing in 2023, noting he will not return to competition in 2022 and leaving the door open to compete part-time next season for 23XI Racing.
The decision comes after Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, sustained a concussion on July 23 at Pocono in qualifying, seconds after Earnhardt’s praise.
“The doctors have come to the conclusion that it’s best for me to shut it down for the season,” Busch said from the track’s media center. “And even though I’ve made solid gains, and been working with all the top specialists, and the team at Toyota Performance Center, I’m still not 100% and I’m still not cleared to race.
“As I continue to focus on my health towards being cleared, I’ll be stepping away from full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition in 2023. My long-term health is priority number one, and I don’t feel committing at this point to compete for a championship next year is in my best interest, or in the best interest of the team.”
The driver of the No. 45 Toyota was victorious at Kansas Speedway in May, qualifying for the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. Busch has missed every race since the incident at Pocono and symptoms from his crash led to Busch withdrawing his medical waiver for the postseason. But Busch clarified that the Pocono crash wasn’t the only determining factor.
“There’s not one moment or one circumstance that has led to this decision. It’s a layer of things,” Busch said. “And just to be frank and to smile a little bit, I mean, I’ve wrecked a lot of [crap] in my life — old cars, new cars. And so over the years, things add up.
“And you know, different wrecks this year have made it tough and the grind to get back each week to 100%, that was starting to get tough this summer. And then with the accident at Pocono, it’s, again, part of everything that’s kind of added up.”
Nearly three months since his most recent crash, Busch detailed the symptoms still plaguing him as he continues his recovery.
“I was pushing hard to the first three weeks after the accident. And then with the playoffs starting and not being approved, that emotional week was really tough,” Busch said. “The emotions of this are something that I wasn’t prepared for — nobody’s prepared for anything like this — but mainly the vestibular movements.
“So with head movements and torso movements with my heart rate elevated, that’s when things move quick in my peripheral back to right up front. So it’d be like looking in the mirror, and then being back towards the windshield and around the competitors, checking the dash — like just things are moving quick. And things are slowing down. Things are coming back to me. I just know I’m not at 100%. So the vestibular side is really where I’m focused on with my concussion.”
For Busch, it’s the next chapter of a Cup Series career that includes 34 victories, the first playoff-era championship and a Daytona 500 win in a 22-year period.
The 44-year-old Busch offered an update on his health Sept. 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, saying he was “hopeful” about a return to competition this season and noting his progress in the recovery from his Pocono crash. His timetable for a potential comeback, though, remained unclear. “I feel good, and I don’t know when I’ll be back, but time has been the challenge,” Busch said. “He’s … Father Time is the one in charge on this one.”
Nonetheless, Busch was quick to note a step away from full-time Cup racing was likely coming shortly.
“I’m at peace where things are,” he said Saturday. “I was close to the end of my contract, and that full drive for a championship run, I was real close to that [ending] anyhow. And so it just happened a little sooner. But to race part-time and to enjoy things with a little less pressure, I think that will help fulfill things and then close that door.
“But to pursue a championship and to run 36 race weekends week in, week out, it was getting tough for my body to go through no matter what. And so this just changed the course just a little bit. But I’m happy with where things are and my family with the race team, with Monster, with Toyota. There’s gonna be plenty of things to do to keep that passion alive and to write the final chapter.”
— Toyota Racing (@ToyotaRacing) October 15, 2022
Busch’s departure brings Tyler Reddick to the No. 45 team a year ahead of schedule to be Busch’s full-time replacement. The organization announced in July that it had signed the 26-year-old standout to a deal beginning in 2024, but an agreement struck with Richard Childress Racing will release him from his obligations to the No. 8 Chevrolet team next year.
Busch has become an elder statesman of the sport, eager to better the young talent that continues to come through the pipelines. Now, he’ll embrace that role in depth with teammates Bubba Wallace and Reddick.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with 23XI and this team of wonderful professionals,” Busch said. “I appreciate their support and what they’ve shown me over the last few months. I will continue to work with this group. I want to share my wisdom and knowledge and everything that I’ve gained with my unofficial Ph.D. in this garage area that deserves to stay with 23XI.
“We’re building something special here. And I look forward to continuing to work with Bubba Wallace off the track, as well as Tyler Reddick who will join the team next year to drive the No. 45 Toyota.”
Hamlin has maintained that a seat with 23XI Racing would be available when Busch felt comfortable returning to the cockpit. With Reddick and Wallace confirmed as 23XI’s full-time entrants, a return by Busch to part-time Cup Series competition next year would necessitate a third entry with the team.
Xfinity Series regular Ty Gibbs will continue his role as a substitute for Busch through the end of the year. Gibbs has been a capable fill-in for Busch, though the 20-year-old rookie’s results have been marked by four DNFs. His best finish thus far was 10th at Michigan International Speedway, where he led the first laps of his Cup Series career.
“We’ve found a diamond in the rough,” Busch said of Gibbs. “I mean, we’ve seen Tyler on track before, but now to really jump into some of the telemetry, to see him on the road courses and the way that he’s just attacking all the time, those are the things that we want as a top driver with our team”
Though Busch bowed out of a postseason appearance, his Kansas victory qualified 23XI Racing’s No. 45 team for the team owners’ playoffs. 23XI shifted Wallace to car No. 45 for the postseason, in an effort to give the team a veteran edge. The No. 45 advanced through the first round but was eliminated from the team owners’ grid after the Round of 12.
Contributing: Staff reports