NASCAR: Kyle Busch decision could haunt Joe Gibbs Racing

Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR - Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Kyle Busch is no longer with Joe Gibbs Racing after an incredibly successful 15-year run, having joined forces with Richard Childress Racing for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

After 56 victories and two NASCAR Cup Series championships over the course of 15 seasons, all winning seasons, Kyle Busch has left Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota to reunite with Chevrolet at Richard Childress Racing.

A year ago at this time, such a statement would have seemed like an insane headline reserved for April Fools’ Day, but with M&M’s leaving and another promising sponsorship development having fallen through, Busch indeed is set to replace the 23XI Racing-bound Tyler Reddick behind the wheel of the No. 8 Chevrolet on a multi-year deal.

Replacing Busch behind the wheel of the No. 18 Toyota, which has become the No. 54 Toyota for 2023, is Ty Gibbs, the 20-year-old grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs who won the Xfinity Series championship in his first full season competing at NASCAR’s second highest level in 2022.

Gibbs has long been seen as the “next big thing” in NASCAR, more specifically for Toyota, but this decision has all the makings of one that could haunt Joe Gibbs Racing.

For one, Gibbs was poised to make the move to Joe Gibbs Racing in the near future one way or another. The issue is that they stated early on that they wanted to avoid rushing him by moving him up to the Cup Series after just one full season in the Xfinity Series. Yet that’s exactly what they have done.

Of course, the Charlotte, North Carolina native did get 15 races of unexpected Cup Series experience as the replacement for the injured Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing, something that Joe Gibbs Racing obviously hadn’t planned on when making their initial assessment.

But in those 15 races, Gibbs was hardly a world-beater, posting an average finish of 22.9 and finishing no higher than 10th place.

To compare, during that 15-race span, full-time driver Bubba Wallace competed in 14 races (he was suspended for the other). Wallace is a driver who has been criticized for his lack of performance on multiple occasions, yet he managed to post an average finish of 14.6 with seven top nine results, including a win.

Now Gibbs is set to replace the team’s all-time most successful driver, a year early than anybody would have liked.

To add onto that, even at 37 years old, Busch was still only the third oldest driver within the four-car organization. He was born five years after Martin Truex Jr., who has already hinted at retirement, and Denny Hamlin, who faces his own sponsorship uncertainty entering the 2023 season.

So Joe Gibbs Racing still have to worry about replacing Truex and Hamlin at some point in the near future. Needless to say, they can’t call upon Gibbs for a second time, and now Busch won’t be there to serve as the organization’s veteran driver when they depart.

As for Richard Childress Racing, it is no secret that they haven’t been on par with some of the sport’s powerhouse teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing, over the last several years, but with the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022, they got themselves back into the game.

The team won four races, their highest total since 2013, with Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon, while Joe Gibbs Racing only managed six with four drivers, including one that basically went to Busch by default after Reddick was wrecked from the lead in the final corner of the final lap.

Busch may not be in his prime, having won just five races since June 2019 after opening up the 2019 season with four in the first four months.

His 2019 championship masked what was somewhat of a struggle-filled second half of the 2019 season, and those struggles carried over into 2020, when it took him until the antepenultimate race of the year to extend his win streak to 16 seasons.

But he is still a driver who came only a few spots away from a sixth Championship 4 berth in 2021, and he is still a driver who tied Richard Petty’s all-time record with an 18th consecutive winning season in 2022, solidifying himself a spot in the playoffs for an all-time record 13th straight season.

For Busch, a change of scenery seemed necessary, especially as the pressure of landing a new deal led to somewhat of a dramatic and uncertainty-based silly season situation which centered around him throughout the better part of the 2022 campaign.

At the very least, Busch had more to gain by switching teams than Joe Gibbs Racing did by getting rid of him, and it’s not even close.

Now that silly season pressure, which once had Busch thinking he’d be out of the sport if he couldn’t sign a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, is gone, and he can focus on one thing: winning.

There’s a reason — multiple, in fact — Toyota officials stated, on several occasions throughout the Busch contract saga, that they had no desire of competing against a “pissed off Kyle Busch”.

While there is little to suggest Busch isn’t happy with the move he made, there is little doubt that he will want to make Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota regret not doing more to retain him, even though they have claimed that they did all they could.

Now they get to do just that: race against a “pissed off Kyle Busch”.

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And aside from cutoff race ace Christopher Bell, they get to do so with two veterans who don’t have contracts that extend beyond 2023, plus a rookie not even half their age. It’s a perfect opportunity for Busch to make them regret everything that ultimately led to his departure.