Kurt Busch’s first meeting with Michael Jordan was both memorable and persuasive.
First was the handshake in which Busch, who stands at 5 feet, 11 inches, stared up at the six-foot-six Jordan. When Jordan sat down in that boardroom, it was clear he was in charge. And then came the words that grabbed Busch.
“It was within two minutes he says, “We will win together,’” Busch said on Wednesday ahead of his first Daytona 500 with 23XI Racing. “It was the easiest conversation I’ve ever had with a team owner to know that we’re on the same page on day one.”
Busch was at the top of the candidate list for all involved when 23XI decided to expand to two cars. The organization and the manufacturer count on Busch’s experience and talent to elevate the program.
As soon as Busch’s contract window opened in the summer of 2021, he met Jordan. Team co-owner Denny Hamlin already knew Busch’s talent, having raced against him in the NASCAR Cup Series since 2006. And Toyota Racing president David Wilson was familiar with Busch not only from watching him from afar, but from Busch’s tenure driving a limited number of races for brother Kyle Busch in the Xfinity Series in 2012.
Hamlin wants to see both of his cars make the playoffs this season. For Busch, doing so is not only realistic but likely. Busch has made 15 playoff appearances, including the last nine consecutive seasons. The goals for Busch haven’t changed even though the team and manufacturer have.
“We’ve set our expectations very high and we have every ambition and every bit of focus and intensity to achieve those goals,” Busch said. “Winning races, both cars in the playoffs, and for us, making a run through the playoffs to have a shot at the final four. That’s what we want to do on the 45 car. There’s no reason to think that we can’t with the information sharing and the technology we have with Toyota and the notebook that nobody has right now (with Next Gen). That it’s a clean slate, and we build from ground zero.
“Right now, we’re tied for the lead in points, and we intend to work our way through the first couple of months with a points-building frame of mind. It reminds me of 2019 when I switched to [Chip] Ganassi. My goal was to get as many points early in the year, and it gave me this free mindset of relaxing through the summer months because we know we were pretty much guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.”
Busch will work with Billy Scott, with whom he previously paired and won at Stewart-Haas Racing. Teammate Darrell Wallace Jr. is back with no-nonsense veteran leader Bootie Barker. Wallace and Barker earned 23XI its first win late last season at Talladega Superspeedway.
Busch has also seen the organization building for success in other ways as its added his team to the lineup.
In Sept., Mike Wheeler, who was splitting his time as director of competition and crew chief for Wallace, moved solely into the director of competition role. Fresh off the Xfinity Series championship with Daniel Hemric, Dave Rogers was hired from Joe Gibbs Racing as performance director at 23XI Racing.
“Dave Rogers has been a huge addition as performance director to 23XI. Wheels has found his role as the competition director,” said Busch. “Between those two guys, the two crew chiefs of Billy Scott, Bootie Barker, I’m not just namedropping, we’ve got the right guys in the right places to gather the information from JGR and work with them and Toyota to make a good run at this in 2022.”