AVONDALE, Ariz. – Kyle Busch emerged from the No. 18 Toyota for the last time in his 15-year tenure and made a point to hug each crew member of his Joe Gibbs Racing team. There were smiles, memories, but also a quiver in his voice after what was already scheduled to be a bittersweet day for the departing veteran at Phoenix Raceway had become that much more emotional.
Busch talked fondly about the end of his accomplished career with JGR after placing seventh in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale. That result made him the top-finishing driver for the organization, but the heartfelt feelings ran far deeper after the news that Coy Gibbs – a foundational member of the family team – had died overnight at age 49.
Busch navigated the flood of emotions by letting the rush of race day take over.
“Probably just the adrenaline, the focus and all of that stuff,” Busch said. “Once you put a helmet on, you know, you’ve got enough stuff going on that you’re worried about everything else. So you know, no different than anything. Of all the trials I’ve been through this year, today was obviously the worst of it all, and the hardest of it all. Just gave it everything I had, and that’s all we had. So, wish it could have been better, wish it could have been a top five, you know, top three, run a little bit better, but I’ll take the satisfaction in the top Gibbs car.”
Busch will open the next chapter in his racing career next season with Richard Childress Racing, a destination that the 37-year-old driver reached after a prolonged and public contract negotiation period with the Gibbs team. The loss of longtime sponsor M&Ms and Mars at the end of the year also prompted the shift.
But Busch was thorough in expressing his gratitude to both partners, and his No. 18 provided a colorful mosaic tribute in its paint scheme. Seeing it on the grid for Sunday’s season-ender brought home the finality of it.
“I couldn’t even look at my car to begin with,” Busch said, “because it was the last time I’m gonna see it.”
Busch got the more difficult news after making the last of his hospitality rounds Sunday morning as he worked his way back to the motorcoach lot, where teammate Denny Hamlin and representatives with Toyota had just gotten word of Coy Gibbs’ passing.
“He was a lot like me,” Busch said. “He didn’t take any bull—- and told everybody the way it was and straight to their face, you know. So, loved Coy for that, and for his tenacity. He took on a huge role in filling the shoes of his brother, and maybe a little bit more on the competition side than the business side in that respect. But he’s done nothing but try to push us all to go forward and to win races and be competitive and to be strong and all that. And so, honestly, that’s what I’ll remember most about him.”
Busch shared an embrace with JGR team president Dave Alpern, senior VP Jimmy Makar, and Victoria B. Mars, the former chairwoman of the candy company, on pit road after the race. Makar – one of the organization’s first hires — was among the first well-wishers outside of his pit crew to thank Busch, not just for his two Cup Series championships and the multitude of wins, but for rejuvenating a No. 18 team that had gone winless for four consecutive seasons before Busch’s arrival.
“I mean, he meant a lot,” Makar told NASCAR.com. “You know, through all his controversy and all the things that we all have gone through with Kyle, he’s still a huge part of this race team. What he’s brought to the team, what he’s done to revitalize the 18 car way back in ’08, it meant a lot to me, and that’s why I had to let him know that it did. I appreciate all that he has done to help the 18 car, coming in there as a driver to get back on the winning track. So just wish him the best where he’s going and his future.”
Busch also thanked longtime crew chief Adam Stevens, who was atop the pit box for his two Cup Series titles in 2015 and 2019. Stevens shifted to working with driver Christopher Bell ahead of the 2021 season and helped guide him to the Championship 4 round this year, where he wound up third of the quartet behind second-time title winner Joey Logano.
Busch warmly recalled their partnership by saying, “we were Jimmie and Chad” – a nod to the legendary Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus pairing that produced a record-tying seven championships. For Stevens, his memories centered on his appreciation for helping him seize an opportunity at the Cup Series level.
“I mean, I can’t say a lot but thanks to KB, you know,” Stevens told NASCAR.com. “He meant a tremendous amount to Joe Gibbs Racing and a tremendous amount to me professionally. He took me in as an Xfinity guy and stepped out on the limb there to vouch for me coming up and we had a good run. We had a lot of success and a lot of good times, and unfortunately, his time has come to an end at Joe Gibbs Racing, but there’s going to be a lot more you’ll see out of him in the future, I’m sure. But it’s just a crazy, crazy day here.”
Busch finished his rounds and media interviews and headed back to the No. 18 hauler for one last time. After changing out of his bright yellow fire suit, he hugged more members of his team before hopping onto a waiting golf cart with older brother, Kurt, to leave the track.
Kyle Busch had already described the emotions as “gut-wrenching” in a social-media post in a tribute to Coy Gibbs and an acknowledgement of his departure. As the engines had started to cool on the Phoenix pit road, Busch’s growing sense of closure had caused his voice to crack as he reflected on the JGR era.
“It’s hard, man. It’s … it’s not easy,” Busch said. “Just wish it wasn’t what it was or what it is. But gonna miss a lot of fun folks that we got to spend a lot of time with over the years, and just look forward to new adventures.”