Since they first started lining up against one another in the NASCAR Cup Series 17 years ago, drivers Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin have competed against one another 578 times, Hamlin, who first ran in Cup in 2005, winning 46 races along the way. Busch, meanwhile, who first entered Cup in 2000, has won 33 Cup races, and in 2004, the Cup Series Championship. But come 2022, things will be different for them both as Busch joins 23XI Racing. Busch was exactly who team owners Hamlin and NBA superhero Michael Jordan wanted to match up with 23XI Racing team driver and 2021 Talladega winner Bubba Wallace come the drop of the green flag on ‘22.
The last couple of weeks have been quite busy for new hire Busch. In mid-November, word came down that Billy Scott would join 23XI Racing as crew chief for Busch’s car. It’s a proven pairing, as the duo worked together at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 and won a race and placed in the top 10 22 times. Busch recently climbed into the Next Gen car for an organizational test at Charlotte and had a big smile on his face afterward. “There’s been a lot to digest today. There’s a lot going on, and it’s been a good day at 23XI to start out with a new group of guys and to meet some of the TRD people as well behind the scenes.”
Q: With the season recently completed, is it it time to catch your breath?
Kurt Busch: Yes, for me, it’s all starting to slow down and feel like home because of the transition from Ganassi over to 23XI. You know with the banquet and the burnouts, it all now feels like this is home. I shook Denny’s hand (at the awards banquet) and we had a bro-hug moment to the future — we all know it’s going to take time to build it up and to find the expectations that we all want to achieve. There will also be little goals and victories along the way.
Q: Billy Scott will be there with you in 2022. That has to be encouraging since you worked very well together at Stewart-Haas Racing?
KB: Yes. It’s great to be reunited with Billy Scott. Him and I raced together at Stewart-Hass Racing back in 2018 and that was the season that produced the most top-10 finishes for both of us and so that consistency is what we are using as our foundation.
Q: As far as the new Next Gen car, what do you think? I mean it is an absolute clean sheet of paper for you, isn’t it?
KB: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It feels like a fun project and with the way the new car drives and it’s drivability, it’s a clean slate. You name it, everything is going to be different from pit strategy, race setups, tire wear — and that’s the intrigue, the challenge and the fun of why all of this works. I’m very grateful that Toyota wanted me to come in here as a veteran to help lead the program. The support and the friendship from Monster Energy just means the world to me that we can do this and we’re going to win with MJ and Denny.
Everybody has an easy communication level right now and it drew it us all together in such a unique way that if we keep this easy communication line open, that’s going to lead to the consistency, the development and the wins and a playoff push into the championship run. So that’s where all the steps have to be put together in the right order and I think that at this part of my career, it’s a perfect fit. I’m happy to have Bubba Wallace as my teammate and then to follow the lead from a new manufacturer, it puts me in student mode as well. I’m not the oracle. I’m not the guy who is going to fix everything, but I feel like I can help tie a lot of things together to make success happen faster.
Q: You’ve been at all of this for 23 seasons. With all of your experience and technical acumen, what is it like to watch a new race team being built up before your very eyes?
KB: It’s beautiful. It’s something special to me. I feel like the crew is my family. I feel like there are young guys that are like my nephews or like my kids that are there to learn, but I also need their help to make sure that everybody is pulling the rope in the right direction. It’s just a fun balance of life, sponsorship, charisma from everybody and also the competition. When we hit the racetrack with this 45 car, we are there to win and everybody knows that on day one.
Q: So much newness to absorb…
KB: I’m with you 100 percent. There is so much newness. There is so much that is unknown. And then there is this new Next Gen car with the sequential gearbox and 18-inch wheels and tires. Again, there is just so much newness that everybody has got to use that experience to, in my mind, create the normalcy and to find the patterns that it will take to win. I mean it can be as simple as that one idea that clicks across and organization or for a manufacturer and then it still gets back to the level of detail to have that one up and that edge on the competition.
Q: When you first climbed into the Next Gen car, what was your first blush feeling?
KB: Just hoping in the Next Gen car, it’s relatively the same as the current car. The greenhouse is a little smaller and some of the viewpoints are a little bit more tucked-in, but driving it with the sequential gearbox, and the brakes you can drive in way further than you could, it’s almost a test of newness. And qualifying this new car at a higher pace and at a higher velocity that you have to throw some of the old things and some of the old routines away. For me, the tire wear and understanding the tire sequences on when to pit and when not to with the bigger tires and also understanding the less forgiveness in what it is showing so far. The tire acts more like a sports car tire where it has a peak of grip, but it takes a while to get there and then it drops off quicker. We’re looking at everything and working on everything.
Q: Is the 23XI Racing team infrastructure coming together like you want it to? There has been a lot going on including the team charter, land being bought, a race shop being constructed, all new team members showing up for their first day on the job, on and on.
KB: I feel like all the people involved are in the right capacity for making the decisions for certain things. Whether it is shop development, whether it is PR or the travel. My big focus, of course, is my crew chief Billy Scott and the guys that immediately work on the 45 car, and meeting and getting to know all of the TRD people. It has been eye-opening to learning a new manufacturer and then there is all of the different guys from the different teams, you know? A tire guy came from Ganassi, my engineer was at 23XI, but he was at Hendrick before. We have a beautiful melting pot of guys that have the most drive and the most passion right now to drive hard and go hard and that’s what we are going to do together. This is like an NHL draft and we’re an expansion team. The Las Vegas Nights went through this a couple years ago. You get to pick all-star people from different teams that are open and ready to go and that’s the human spirit of building something together and knowing that it’s a reach for something new. We know what has to be done and that’s to go get checkered flags.
Bubba Wallace has made it clear that he’s thrilled that you’re part of the 23XI effort.
KB: Bubba is awesome. He’s wanting to go and to learn and to build on the Talladega win and he knows that this is the new clean slate that everybody is looking for with the car. Gas it up, let’s rip. It’s been fun to have some casual meetings with him. We’ve had a couple of beers together. Now we have to go through some of our test notes and start to review as teammates just as if we’ve been together for years. We’ve kind of got to push right now during the off-season to get that dialog going.
Q: Denny Hamlin has not been shy in saying that he’s absolutely thrilled to have you. You and Denny good with everything?
KB: 100 percent. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and the friendship that we had on track before this and the business understanding as we move forward and ultimately the responsibility that comes with this, I’m hopeful, flattered, grateful, all of it to deliver for Denny, for MJ and for Toyota and most importantly, for all of these guys that signed on to a new team. We are all here to win together for Monster Energy. You know, there is the final chapter-type feel here.
Q: Your move to 23XI Racing seems to have been has very well received, with fans and media amped to see a veteran join forces with a race team that’s still finding its way.
KB: I’m flattered by the support. At the same time, I put the blinders and go focus with the race team. It’s all about a team effort, NASCAR with this Next Gen car, all the newness, the new schedule — I’m just happy to do my part and give to all the categories.