The honeymoon phase for new NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Busch is coming to an end as post-season celebrations turn to preparing for his Rolex 24 At Daytona debut.
Fresh from earning his second title for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry team, the Nevada native is preparing for his first major endurance race, which starts in the form of testing at the January 3-5 Roar Before The 24 event at Daytona with the AIM Vasser Sullivan team.
The collaboration between AIM Autosport and team owners Jimmy Vasser and James ‘Sully’ Sullivan, with its factory affiliation to Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus, offers the 34-year-old an opportunity to stay within the manufacturer’s family while adding a major international race to his resume.
“It’s definitely something different and something that I’ve always given some thought to — whenever the opportunity would present itself, maybe get a chance to go out there and have some endurance racing under my belt,” Busch said. “Thanks to Lexus and everybody at [AIM Vasser Sullivan] Racing, I’m really looking forward to it. Talked to Vasser a little bit and Sully a little bit, and those guys, it’s been pretty cool thus far just to kind of get a sense of what the car is and the race, and the atmosphere of the events.”
The Roar and the Jan. 23-26 Rolex 24 will mark Busch’s second outing in sports car competition. His first, an exhausting Grand-Am Rolex Series affair in 2009 with fellow American Scott Speed driving a Chip Ganassi Racing Daytona Prototype at Daytona International Speedway, lasted less than three hours.
With AVS, he’ll share a production-based Lexus RC F GT3 with ex-IndyCar driver Jack Hawksworth from England and teenage American Parker Chase. Overtaking prototypes and faster cars from the GT Le Mans class can complicate the lives of drivers in Busch’s GT Daytona category, which means contact will happen on more than one occasion throughout the 24 hours.
In the truest sense of the word, Busch will be tasked with enduring in each stint behind the wheel of the No. 14 Lexus and, despite trading paint on a regular basis in NASCAR, he knows that avoiding damage is key to success at the Rolex 24.
“I’ve never necessarily thought about going into a race to have to think about body contact or anything like that,” he said. “I just go out there and try to run clean and run hard and do the best I can for my team. You’ve got to keep the car clean for at least 20 hours in order to be able to have a shot to go race it in the final four.
“I’ve driven the prototypes before. It was years ago … there was a race at Daytona in the summer and I baked in that one. So that was no fun, but was able to at least get some experience at it and get a taste of it. Really looking forward to being able to go run a 24 with swapping out drivers and everything else here.”
Unlike his No. 18 Camry, Busch will need to compromise on the chassis and aerodynamic settings on the No. 14 Lexus to suit his co-drivers.
“That’s definitely going to be somewhat of a learning curve,” he continued. “When I did it the first time with Scott Speed, we had different driving styles for sure. There were some things that he liked, some things that I didn’t like and vice versa. So, you’re always going to have that with multiple drivers behind the car.
“But I think the biggest thing is just going to be looking at Jack [Hawksworth], obviously being our top driver on my car, to look at him and some of his driving tendencies and the things that he does, and try to emulate that as much as possible to be able to be comfortable in running the same stuff. We’ve spoken on the phone a couple times, so I’ve gotten a sense of what to expect at least. But you never really know until you get your butt in the seat and behind the wheel.”
Spending time on Toyota Racing Development’s simulator in a virtual RCF GT3 at Daytona will take place before the Roar. Once he gets to the paddock, Busch will add his name to a fraternity of stars from different forms of racing who’ve entered the legendary event.
“Definitely, I’ve watched the 24 Hours a few times and obviously I’ve kind of looked up and seen some of the NASCAR guys like [Jamie] McMurry, [Kyle] Larson, my brother, [A.J.] Allmendinger, and some of those guys have done it before and they’ve been successful at it,” he said. “And then you see the IndyCar guys come over and they get a shot at it. Some of the retired IndyCar guys, [Helio] Castroneves and [Juan Pablo] Montoya and some others that are doing it now. And it’s interesting just to see, how many different backgrounds all these drivers have.
“You know, when I was a kid and growing up in Las Vegas, Joey Hand was a name that was on a lot of people’s radars. And then I watched and followed the 24-hour stuff and there he is — he’s doing it, and doing real well at it. So, it’s pretty cool to see that and to know all the different backgrounds that drivers are coming from and being able to get out there and race against them. I look forward to that.”
The Rolex 24 could be the first of many extra-curricular races for Busch to pursue.
Unexpectedly, a global drivers’ championship created by Indy 500 regular JR Hildebrand has caught Busch’s attention, and with the formation of the rogue ‘Rufus Legacy’ contest, which awards points to drivers from all major disciplines, the NASCAR star wants to win the title named after 1963 Indy 500 winner Rufus ‘Parnelli’ Jones.
“There’s certainly Le Mans; the last couple of years it was on the NASCAR off-week, and so I was actually going to try to put it together this year, because there’s this Rufus thing with Hildebrand there,” he said. “So with that going on I was like, ‘OK, if I’m going to run the [Rolex] 24 Hour, I might as well figure out if I can do Le Mans; I might as well figure out if I can do this and do that and do some other things.’
“And, obviously [the] Indy [500’s] been on my radar, I haven’t quite been able to get everything worked out to be able to get there yet, but would love to try that. And you know, Baja 1000 I think happens next year after the NASCAR season’s over. So, that could certainly be an option. I mean there’s all kinds of opportunities that hopefully will continue to pop up. And this year might be the year that, hell, I go for it all and give it a shot and see if we can’t win that Rufus thing.
Channeling his inner Parnelli Jones, who was a terror at Indy, in NASCAR, Trans Am, in off-road racing and short ovals, Busch loves the idea of mastering multiple racing disciplines and seeing how all the points add up in the Rufus Legacy championship.
While two NASCAR Cup titles would satisfy most drivers, Busch has Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, and other stars of the sport in his crosshairs. Amassing as many points as possible and earning the crown in Hildebrand’s independent drivers-only championship is the goal. The contest’s namesake would certainly approve.
“I think what makes it even more interesting and cool is that it’s all sorts of different forms of motorsports,” he continued. “You know, it’s not just your day job. Obviously it includes your day job, but then it’s Indy cars, it’s sports cars, it’s off road trucks, it’s Formula 1 cars. Dirt late models are in it. Sprint cars are in it, midgets are in it, the Snowball Derby’s in it. So, it’s pretty awesome that all that’s in there and, hell, out of all of those, I could probably figure out how to do all but about two of them.”
Enjoy the full conversation with Busch in the podcast below: