DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch opened the doors on a rollicking Saturday afternoon press conference at Daytona International Speedway by heading off any obvious questions.
“Hold on, first I have an announcement to make. Everybody ready?” Busch said before a slight dramatic pause that hinted at him shedding new light on his driving duties for 2023.
“OK, there is no announcement,” Busch said to laughs. “Good? We all good, we clear? Moving on.”
The future of the current driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota remains very much in play as the NASCAR Cup Series preps for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, Sunday’s regular-season finale on the 2.5-mile superspeedway (NBC, Peacock, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). No new light was shed on his inner workings of his contract negotiations or any shopping for new homes in the Cup Series garage.
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Some light on the situation came instead from David Wilson, the astute president of Toyota Racing Development who held court in a wide-ranging, two-part conversation with reporters in the Daytona media center — stepping away for a quick radio hit midway before returning for Round 2 in a full 30-minute chat.
Wilson reiterated the importance of Busch to Toyota’s success, a performance trait that’s endured since he first joined JGR’s No. 18 group in 2008. “I mean, Kyle Busch is our 60 home-run hitter,” Wilson said, pulling a number that happens to equal Busch’s Cup Series win total. “And we’d be foolish not to put everything in play to keep them in the family. And that’s what we continue to do.”
Wilson was challenged on the “everything in play” stance, given that the prolonged contract negotiations have yet to yield a working agreement for next season. Busch has gauged interest from other organizations and has said he would be willing to stay put with JGR with a deal at less than his market value in free agency.
“Everything is comprehensive. You know, we have a role. Manufacturers play a role. Toyota has a role within the garage,” Wilson said. “We don’t own drivers, we don’t own racing teams. So within the bounds, within a reasonable balance of a manufacturer in the sport, we’re doing what we can to try and keep Kyle in our family. Hey, this is not just an offensive consideration. I don’t want to race against a pissed-off Kyle Busch, and wherever he lands, he’s gonna do some damage. But, you know, as I’ve said before … it’s been a lot of heavy lifting. And that hasn’t changed.”
Those options to keep Busch in the Toyota camp are limited to two organizations — Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing — which field a total of six chartered cars in the Cup Series. The driver status for one of those cars is currently in flux, with older brother Kurt Busch to miss the last six races of the regular season after suffering a head injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in July.
Without medical clearance, he withdrew his waiver for postseason eligibility earlier this week. Budding star Ty Gibbs, an Xfinity Series regular, has filled in with 23XI Racing’s No. 45 Toyota team in Kurt Busch’s absence.
Kurt Busch’s uncertain status has fueled speculation that his brother might shift to the 23XI side, a move that would also continue Kyle Busch Motorsports’ established relationship as what Wilson called a “crown jewel” driver development program in the Camping World Truck Series. Wilson confirmed that expanding Toyota’s Cup Series fleet to seven cars was a consideration, but said that a Kyle-for-Kurt maneuver to 23XI was not at the moment.
“So here’s the thing, Kurt Busch is under contract to drive the 45 23XI Camry TRD next year, and that is our working assumption,” Wilson said. “We know that’s what Kurt wants to do. As we put forth earlier this week, our priority is his health and well-being. Of course, we would love to see him back in the 45, because we know how important that is to him, but he’s going to drive that decision, and with, again, the good counsel that he has on the on the medical front.”
As for a timetable on firming up those decisions, Wilson said “there’s not a line in the sand right now. I think that will kind of self-determine ultimately, because wherever Kyle ends up — with whomever Kyle ends up — that entity will need the time to cement that. So I think it’s going to happen organically. I can’t see it going, you know, deep into the playoffs.”
Though the negotiations have been a part of the business side, Wilson took note that it’s a personal relationship as well. Busch brought Toyota its first Cup Series victory, and the bonds go beyond the mere driver-team contract. Those qualities bubbled up when Wilson was asked where the contract talks ranked among the automaker’s hurdles from its time in NASCAR’s top tour.
“Of all the things that I am responsible for what is most impactful to me are the people,” Wilson said. “It’s not the boxscore. It’s the people, the partners that we are engaged with in the sport. Kyle can be an unlikable individual. We all know how polarizing he is amongst our fan base, but he’s a human being as well. And we take this very seriously. We know how difficult this has been for him, and it puts great responsibility on ourselves. I just want to see Kyle in a good place. I hope it’s with Toyota. But what’s most important is that he lands on his feet, and he and his and his family are in a good place.”