Why Kurt Busch is NASCAR’s greatest journeyman

Kurt Busch, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kurt Busch, 23XI Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

A former NASCAR Cup Series champion shouldn’t usually be considered a journeyman, but Kurt Busch’s career makes him arguably the greatest.

Kurt Busch has seen a lot throughout his NASCAR career; that much is an understatement. Throughout it, the Las Vegas, Nevada native has become the greatest journeyman the sport has ever seen. As time goes on, he continues to advance the argument that wherever he goes, he makes a team better.

He began his career driving for Roush Racing (now RFK Racing), and he delivered team owner Jack Roush his second ever Cup Series title in just his fourth full season. While some drivers go a lifetime without the hardware, Busch found a way to obtain it shortly after he began piloting the #97 Ford.

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But tensions would eventually rise, and Busch would be released by the team. However, the 2004 Cup Series champion found himself with another promising opportunity: replacing Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing South (now Team Penske) in the #2 Dodge.

Busch brought to Penske what he brought to Roush: wins. He scored a victory in just his fifth race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2006. But his frustrations with the team owner got the best of him again, this time with Roger Penske, and he was eventually released by the team.

A release from two premier teams is where Busch’s rise to redemption started in his journeyman-like career.

Busch now found himself in a lower-tier ride, driving the #51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing. But in typical Kurt Busch fashion, he did what he does best and made the team better, giving the organization their best ever non-superspeedway result with a third place finish at Sonoma Raceway in 2012.

With six races to go in the 2012 season, which ended with the #51 team in their best ever position in the owner standings (27th place), Busch joined Furniture Row Racing to drive the #78 Chevrolet.

This was well before the days of Barney Visser’s team being a regular frontrunner and championship contender with Martin Truex Jr.

It was Busch who turned the Denver, Colorado-based team into a playoff threat as opposed to a backmarker. Prior to his arrival, the #78 team had never finished higher than 24th place in the owner standings. In his first full season, they finished in 10th.

This propelled Busch back to a premier team in 2014: Stewart-Haas Racing. Yet again, Busch delivered. While driving for the team co-owned by Gene Haas and Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, Busch won his first Daytona 500 in 2017.

From journeyman to “jumpman”, Busch has continued his winning ways wherever he goes.

After five consecutive winning seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch joined Chip Ganassi Racing, where he added three winning seasons to that streak.

But Chip Ganassi Racing ended up being sold to Trackhouse Racing Team following the 2021 campaign, and Busch found himself teaming with Bubba Wallace at 23XI Racing.

With 23XI Racing, a Toyota team co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin that entered the sport last year, Busch delivered, as he always has.

In his 13th start with the team, he earned a victory on Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway in the #45 Toyota. With this victory, he represented the Jordan Brand well, running a paint scheme that resembled the iconic shoe line.

The win was the perfect addition to Busch’s swiss army knife-type career, as he also found himself becoming the lone Cup Series driver to ever win for Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota.

The win also gives 23XI Racing the opportunity to lock up their first ever playoff berth, and it played a role in a tragedy-to-triumph story as well.

The #45 had been unofficially retired from NASCAR after Petty Enterprises closed in 2008, when the number was run as a tribute to the late Adam Petty. The son of Kyle Petty and grandson of Richard Petty passed away in a practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

But just a couple days after the 22nd anniversary of Adam’s passing, Busch brought light to the number by waving a checkered flag next to it, earning it its first victory since 1964.

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Busch will surely become a Hall of Famer whenever his career is finished. And while the what-ifs may play into the narrative of his career, a few constants remain: the 43-year-old can make gold out of any equipment, he is a true wheelman in the Next Gen era, and he is NASCAR’s ultimate journeyman.