Kurt Busch will stand on pit road before the start of Sunday’s Daytona 500 but not in the role he expected. Busch will not have on a fire suit or climb aboard a 23XI Racing Toyota. Instead, the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion and 2017 winner of the Daytona 500 is one of nine grand marshals.
There is no denying Busch would rather hear the “drivers, start your engines” command than be one of those giving it. Instead, Busch is working through a much different and emotional weekend.
“This is where I would have been a year from now, so things just happened a little quicker and I’m OK with it,” Busch told RACER. “I’m happy. I’m complacent. Seeing the No. 45 car take off the other night for qualifying definitely had an emotional feeling, but I positioned myself for that. I positioned myself to be right there at the end of pit road to watch Tyler Reddick take off.
“It’s all right. It’s his car. It’s the right move because I know I’m still not 100 percent. I’m there in everyday life — right there — and when I do my workouts and my vestibular movements and balance, those are things that I still feel inside that tell me that I’m not 100 percent to go race with the best of the best racers in the world.”
Busch is still a member of 23XI Racing, at the disposal of Reddick and Bubba Wallace. He’s not raced since Pocono Raceway in July when he was injured in a qualifying crash.
“My role as a consultant with 23XI is something I’m very comfortable with, and being a brand ambassador with Monster Energy,” Busch said. “I’ve been with them for 12 years, and it’s an incredible relationship that’s so much fun. And Toyota, meeting them last year, they got to see a side of a Busch brother they hadn’t seen before, and it’s been fun to fit into their family. That’s how I am with each of the race teams I’ve been with.
“I think one of the best compliments came from the other night during qualifying with a second-year engineer. The kid said, ‘Man, remember where I was a year ago when we first sat here? I didn’t know what I was doing.’ I said, ‘Yes, now look at you.’ The way this kid’s projection is — that’s what I want with all of 23XI, developing all the guys and girls and being a part of the management.
“I’m happy, and I’m having fun with it. It just happened a year early.”
Busch continues his recovery and remains hopeful he will drive again.
For this weekend, at least, being a grand marshal for the sport’s biggest race was a pleasant surprise, one Busch called an honor. Daytona will be the first time he’s served as a Cup Series grand marshal, saying he’s spoiled with how beautifully it worked out. He will do so alongside former champions or Daytona 500 winners: Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson.
“I remember as a kid watching 1998 with the 50th anniversary and all of the excitement and all of the pageantry of a celebration,” Busch said. “This has that same vibe and now my 25 years of racing is being a part of this grand marshal duty. And to share the stage with legends, I’m honored, humbled, and killer excited. I have my championship ring, Daytona 500 ring, championship watch, and my cool leather jacket from 2004. I’m ready to go.”
While it took Busch 16 years to win the Daytona 500, he’s always respected and felt its greatness. It started when he watched with his dad Tom, whom he raced with, as Allison and son Davey finished first and second in 1988. Busch vividly remembers it. He also remembers Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 1998 triumph.
“Driving through the tunnel here my first year as a rookie, that’s when this place really set in — coming here on property,” Busch said. “I was a Truck Series rookie in 2000 and then got to race here as a rookie in 2001. That’s when this place blows you away.”
No matter what role, Busch remains a racer. There is no one defined position or area for Busch at 23XI. You’ll find him observing simulator work, checking on wind tunnel numbers and at the racetrack. He even oversees driver-related things, like making sure marketing reps have proper schedules for Reddick.
“I’m this catch-all that has this Ph.D. from the NASCAR garage and I’m happy to sprinkle it in all areas,” Busch said. “(Thursday night), Reddick was drafting with Denny (Hamlin) and was a bit conservative. He got out of the car and was telling Billy (Scott, crew chief) certain things, and I’m like, ‘Just go with it. Be firmer with your language and how you’re talking to the crew chief and engineer.’ And that’s my main role, to help the No. 45 car mature quicker, just like the No. 23 matured very well last year.”
Busch joked he’s burning through his Jordans with all the steps he’s putting in because there are so many jobs he could do, and he’s trying to find where he should be. The one thing Busch has no problem doing is using his competitive side. During the Duel races, he noticed the wind direction and relayed where the toughest corner on the track would be.
“One of the best conversations I’ve had with Bubba and Tyler is (saying), ‘Explain how you won the races you’ve won,’” Busch said. “It’s not the fastest car that wins most of the time. It’s the teamwork side with pit stops, race strategy, and whether it’s one of their favorite tracks.
“Tyler is a hidden gem. He had three wins last year, and not many people know that. Monster Energy was very surprised when I sat there at a dinner with them the other night. They said, ‘He’s got three?’ Yeah, here we go. We have the right guy.
“Denny Hamlin is a smart guy behind the scenes and he’s a fun owner to work for because he’s still a racer. He’s a new owner, and I’m a racer, and I’m a new guy in my position. But I don’t want the ownership role. I just want to assist him and 23XI the best way I can.”
It’s not only 23XI Racing that has access to Busch, as he has a responsibility to all Toyota drivers across all series. Joe Gibbs and Heather Gibbs personally reached out to him about helping Ty Gibbs, a rookie in the Cup Series this season and fellow Monster Energy driver to whom Busch passed the torch in a recent video posted by the energy drinks company.
Monster Energy keeps Busch busy, as do the continuing obligations to sponsors and Toyota. Maintaining a structured schedule allows him to continue to give back, which will get easier as the weeks go on.
On the topic of giving back, he revealed the ticket giveaway program he began a few years ago has grown from giving 100 tickets away per race to what should be close to 1,000 this season. It’s a program (Vet Tix) Busch found to be a genuine and organic way of recognizing military members and veterans.
In addition, “Window of Hope” begins every July and comes to fruition with the pink window nets used at the Charlotte Roval in the fall. The program raised over $100,000 for the second straight year in 2022.
Both programs combine Busch’s passions: racing and helping others. It’s a “spiritual connection,” he said, about using a platform like NASCAR to spread the message about important causes.
There is also a message from Busch as a new season begins:
“I’m doing well; I appreciate everyone’s concern and the well wishes,” he said. “I’ll get to 100 percent, and once I’m doctor-approved, I hope to then find contracts and situational things to go and race whether it’s here in NASCAR or anywhere around the world.
“But I’m having fun, enjoying life. I always wanted to be that racer that anybody could count on for a nice solid finish each and every weekend. That’s always been my passion – to go to the racetrack and be in that top one percentile.”