Did You Notice?… The Kyle Busch free agency drama has officially ended?
As Busch himself described it, “the announcement of the announcement that’s already been made” was formalizing his decision Tuesday (Sept. 13) to join Richard Childress Racing beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.
For those who missed the press conference today, held at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, here’s a quick summary:
- Busch will drive RCR’s No. 8, replacing Tyler Reddick in that car. Reddick will remain with RCR in 2023, fulfilling his contract in a new, third full-time team backed with a charter purchased from an organization TBA.
- Randall Burnett will remain crew chief of the No. 8 car and team up with Busch.
- Childress already has sponsorship commitments lined up for Busch, although more are being pursued. Financial terms were not disclosed on the contract but it’s a “multi-year” deal.
- Busch’s Camping World Truck Series organization will move from Toyota to Chevrolet, with two to four entries expected. Details of the switch are still coming together.
- While Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch’s current employer, did not officially announce their plans for 2023, reports for weeks have indicated Ty Gibbs will take over the ride.
Now that the smoke is cleared from NASCAR’s Silly Season story of the decade, let’s break down how everyone made out.
Richard Childress. This signing is such a coup for Childress, he gets top billing before Busch himself. Nearlytwo months ago, his two-car organization was reeling from Reddick’s bombshell he’s headed elsewhere, to 23XI Racing once his contract’s up at the end of 2023.
It left Childress sitting high and dry, forced to rebuild again at age 77; time is not his side. Options going forward were limited, even for 2024, considering most of the sport’s top-tier contenders are signed long-term or with the top-tier Chevrolet organization, Hendrick Motorsports, that blew past RCR’s success some 25 years ago.
It’s hard to believe this six-time championship team hasn’t earned one since Dale Earnhardt in 1994. In fact, they haven’t finished better than 11th in points since Ryan Newman made a surprise Championship 4 appearance in 2014. Reddick could potentially break that drought in 2022, winning twice already, but that summer gut-punch turned him into a short-term solution.
That’s where Busch comes in. Immediately, RCR is more relevant than at any time since the days of Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick. His new signee fits the aggressive driving mold of the organization; as Busch himself said, “A new boss that accepts where I’ve been and can help me get to where I want to be.”
Chew on that for a minute. Childress has had two championship-level drivers in the past decade, Harvick and Reddick, say to his face, “you can’t get me there.” It’s got to be refreshing in the sunset of his career to finally pair with a driver who wants to be there. It’s the only active Cup driver with multiple championships, someone who’s four years removed from eight race wins in a single season — more than RCR has had as an organization since Harvick left at the end of 2013.
No offense to Austin Dillon, but the best thing he’s ever done for RCR’s long-term future is tell his granddad to give Busch a call. Even he knows Busch is the key to staying relevant; and in a crowded field, Childress got his man.
Kyle Busch. In a market where the best options were fenced off (Team Penske, HMS) it’s close to the best-case scenario Busch can ask for. Yes, Stewart-Haas Racing would have put Busch in championship-proven equipment. But, at least for 2023, Busch would have had to share the limelight with another Cup champion in Harvick, sharing leadership at best within that organization.
At RCR, there’s no question Busch is the centerpiece. He’s catching the team on an upswing, armed with a new chassis that levels the playing field. Did you know Dillon’s average finish of 16.6 is just a tick lower than Busch’s 16.5 through 28 races this season? While Joe Gibbs Racing has more wins than RCR in 2022 (four to three), they also have double the car count; Reddick also has more top-five finishes (nine) than any JGR driver except Christopher Bell.
Sponsorship and financial support won’t be an issue here; Childress won’t hold back at this point in his career. That equals a hungry Busch, drama-free in 2023 and paired with both resources and a crew chief that’s fine-tuned the No. 8 to front-running status. If they don’t win multiple races and surge into Championship 4 contention, I’d be shocked.
NASCAR Silly Season. Let’s stop for a minute and consider the alternative: Busch locks in a long-term deal with JGR and Toyota. It would mean, scouring the current Cup standings, you’d need to dive down to 28th in points (Ty Dillon) to find a driver who won’t remain with the same team in 2023.
Much of this year’s Silly Season has been a word we haven’t heard much the past few years: stability. Many of the sport’s top drivers locked themselves into long-term deals with their organizations, from Chase Elliott to Ryan Blaney. Others, like Austin Cindric and Gibbs, won’t be going anywhere their entire careers due to nepotism.
Free agency keeps the field fresh, providing crucial offseason storylines. Noah Gragson’s rookie season, as talented as he is, wasn’t going to move the goalposts like this one.
Whomever sells that charter. In a quiet market for charters this year, prices have still reportedly ticked up to $20 million. It’s a cash cow for potential underdog organizations like Rick Ware Racing, Spire Motorsports or anyone else looking for a short-term boost to make their equipment more competitive.
Austin Hill. RCR’s best-performing Xfinity Series driver made his Cup debut in August and was expected to run a limited schedule next season. Now, when Reddick leaves in 2024, there’s an infrastructure for a third full-time Cup team already in place. That makes it far easier to promote Hill and search for requisite sponsorship than being forced to build from scratch at the end of next year.
Brexton Busch. A right of first refusal at age 7? It was a cute moment in the press conference when Childress handed Kyle’s son a contract. But it’s clear both his father and RCR are serious, providing a foundation for the Busch legacy to continue in a similar way Bill Elliott steered son Chase to Hendrick Motorsports as a teenager.
Tyler Reddick. Sure, Reddick doesn’t drive the No. 8 next year. He won’t be teamed with Burnett, and he’ll be third-string within an expanded RCR. But remember what other drivers, from Clint Bowyer to Kasey Kahne, had to suffer through in lame-duck seasons? Pushed to second-tier teams without the resources or the resolve to be competitive on a one-year deal?
Busch’s arrival only strengthens an organization that Reddick had taken to new heights in 2022; the car and team he drives for won’t be folding after the season. Considering the way Reddick’s announcement went down and Childress’ initial anger, it’s probably the best he could have hoped for.
Toyota. There’s a solid argument to be made Busch’s relationship with JGR had gone stale. He has just four wins over the last three seasons, with two different crew chiefs. After making five straight Championship 4 appearances from 2015-19, winning two of them, he’s on the verge of missing three straight. Busch’s recent retirement from the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he earned five victories as recently as last season, also reduced his value as a manufacturer’s alpha pick.
With that said … there were other options. Toyota could have pushed for an expansion of 23XI Racing long term. If 2023 couldn’t happen there, they could have put up the cash to sign Busch to a one-year deal at JGR, transitioning him out while adding the breathing room owner Joe Gibbs once sought with his grandson.
Instead, they’ve let Busch loose, hungry and looking to prove himself. It’ll likely spark a few years of tough transition where the manufacturer’s other top stars, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, sail off into retirement. And as Toyota figures out a long-term strategy to replace them, they’ll have to do so without their main development arm in the Truck Series, Kyle Busch Motorsports.
As TRD President David Wilson admitted himself back in May, “any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment.”
Ty Gibbs. How can Gibbs be on the loser list, you say? The 19-year-old Toyota driver has cleaned up in the Xfinity Series, posting nine victories and an absurd 20.9 win percentage in less than two seasons.
You know who else was impressive early on in his career? Joey Logano as a part-time JGR Xfinity driver in 2008. After winning at age 18, Logano, like Gibbs, was thrust into a Cup ride earlier than expected when Tony Stewart jumped ship to form his own team.
What followed was four years of failing to reach expectations, Logano winning as a Cup rookie but never making the playoffs in four full-time seasons of competition. He needed a full reset, shifting to Team Penske in 2013, in order to fully revitalize his Cup career.
Now, Gibbs has a jump start on Logano as he’s already running Cup part-time, driving the No. 23 for 23XI Racing while Kurt Busch recovers from his concussion (Logano only got three Cup starts before moving up compared to Gibbs’ eight so far). But while teammate Bubba Wallace was winning at Kansas Speedway Sunday (Sept. 11), Gibbs crashed out of that race halfway through. He’s got just one top 10 in those eight starts, a reasonable sample size, and an average finish of 20.9 that trails his Toyota teammates.
And Gibbs has to follow that up by stepping into the biggest ride within JGR in 2023 instead of naturally stepping in, say, following Truex’s retirement in 2024. Several sources throughout the past few months had already told me the organization was concerned about Gibbs’ maturity level and ability to deal with the pressure of that moment; they felt another year in NXS was important for his development.
Instead, the pressure is doubled, and at some point, JGR took the bait of taking a teenager on a deep discount rather than paying the price of a two-time champion. It’s part of this longtime Toyota philosophy, it seems, of not overextending yourself financially.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come back to bite everyone involved.
Q: Were you ever informed the 18 was not an option for you next year?
A: “Yes I was,” KyBusch
Important set of questions and answers here on why a deal with JGR didn’t work>> pic.twitter.com/5ZwsG4d9qJ
— Alan Cavanna (@AlanCavanna) September 13, 2022
Kaulig Racing. There were other suitors who lost out on Kyle; I still feel SHR would have been a nice landing spot. But that organization is well established on the Cup level, filled with championship pedigree and deep pockets.
Kaulig is still a work in progress, holding just one Cup victory to its credit (AJ Allmendinger at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last summer). In their first full-time season on the circuit this year, they’ve seen two sophomore-level organizations run circles around them (23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing Team). At Kaulig, Justin Haley missed the postseason while their three-driver rideshare on the second Cup car (the No. 16) hasn’t resulted in any wins.
Add in an NXS signing that didn’t go so well (Daniel Hemric is still winless), and Kaulig could have used a big splash. Now, their options for 2023 are limited. Do they convince Allmendinger to go full-time Cup? That handicaps the NXS program. Hemric isn’t the big name they’re seeking, and Gragson (who did part-time Cup with Kaulig) is headed elsewhere for 2023.
Other free agent drivers hanging out there (Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie) are raw, unproven commodities. It makes you wonder if Kaulig should have come up with the money they needed, long-term foundation be damned, and gone all in on their man.
John Hunter Nemechek. Our Truck Series reporter, Beth Lunkenheimer, will have more on the KBM situation Thursday at Frontstretch. But we know this much: Busch’s current KBM drivers under contract, Chandler Smith, Corey Heim and Nemechek, will remain part of the Toyota family.
That should keep Nemechek gainfully employed; you wonder if JGR puts him full-time in the No. 18 Xfinity car Gibbs is vacating. But leaving the chemistry he has at KBM, where Nemechek has won seven times the last two seasons, hurts him more than anyone else affected. There’s no guarantee it’s regenerated elsewhere, to the point it seemed the 25-year-old prospect was content to wait it out, picking his spot on where to move down the road.
Now, the future is largely out of his control after Nemechek intentionally took a step back down from the Cup Series. That’s a difficult outcome to accept.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.