One of the greatest things Kurt Busch achieved in his NASCAR career will not be found on a statistic sheet, nor shown in a highlight reel when he’s eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Considering Busch spent 23 years making starts at stock car racing’s highest level, that might be hard to believe. Busch is a Daytona 500 winner, Cup Series champion, All-Star Race winner and at a time, had a near-certain lock on the Bristol Motor Speedway concrete. It is not an exaggeration to say Busch experienced just about everything the sport could throw at him.
The process of navigating all of that also helped bring about his other great accomplishment: the complete reinvention of his personality and likeability.
Busch is a talented son of a gun, and no one has ever questioned what he could do behind the wheel of a race car or his ability to carry that car or race team when needed. But for much of Busch’s career, that talent was overshadowed by his antics.
Bold. Brash. Immature. Unprofessional. The list goes on. Busch was tagged with plenty of unflattering descriptors.
It was self-inflicted. Busch could blow up as quickly as he could drive. There are montages on YouTube still available to relive those moments, including one memorable quote about a monkey and a football.
Busch never discriminated with his blow-ups – they were aimed everywhere. At his race team, the media, and other drivers. His brother didn’t escape, either. Kurt and Kyle went through an extended period of not talking after wrecking together in the 2007 All-Star Race.
There were also off-track incidents that landed him in trouble. For the longest time, Busch just couldn’t get out of his own way.
Consider that a year after winning the championship, Busch was benched by Roush Racing for the final two races of the 2005 season after being charged with reckless driving. There was mutual separation from Team Penske after the 2011 season after his being caught on camera cursing at a television reporter.
In 2012, Busch was suspended for threatening to beat up a reporter after a race. He ripped a different reporter’s papers in the media center after a press conference, having disagreed about something he said that was in a transcript.
Somewhere along the way though a switch finally flipped, leading to an incredible transformation that resulted in his becoming one of the most respected individuals in the NASCAR garage. And one who was showered in love and appreciation after announcing Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway he would not return to racing this season or run full-time in 2023.
Perhaps it was being humbled driving for James Finch (in 2012) and Furniture Row Racing before Furniture Row became a contender. Maybe it was the second chance he got driving championship-caliber equipment for team owners like Tony Stewart and Chip Ganassi.
It also might have been realizing that being ‘The Outlaw’ wasn’t all that great. Being suspended for his on-track actions for off-track accusations can wake someone up really quickly. Every driver acknowledges it’s not a good feeling seeing someone else drive your race car.
Busch wasn’t going to get many second chances, so he needed to make his stick. He did.
Maturity and respect became the way. Over time, Busch worked to be a better person and show change he was changing. As he did, the response to him changed. Fans began cheering when Busch won and acknowledging the difference seen in him.
Remember when people tried to say there was a “new Kyle Busch” as he experienced his own troubles? Well, a new attitude may not have stuck on the youngest Busch, but it certainly did on the older one.
It is not easy to reinvent yourself. It’s even harder for a professional athlete stuck in his ways for so long and living a high-stress, highly competitive lifestyle.
Kurt Busch did to the betterment of himself and the sport. Unfortunately, he will not get to finish his career the way he hoped: competing for a championship with 23XI Racing and being the one to decide when his last race will be as a full-time competitor. Hopefully, Busch will return to 100% health-wise and be able to climb behind the wheel again if he chooses.
If that day doesn’t come, have no fear. Busch is reinventing himself as a resource for 23XI Racing while on the sidelines. Maybe he’ll also do so in another role in the sport.
Whatever it is that Busch does next, it’ll be as the best version of himself. And whatever he does next, Busch is bound to be great.