By Adam Carabine
When you consider Kurt Busch’s legacy in the NASCAR Cup Series, the first things that come to mind aren’t always his wins. Kurt was once known as one of the angriest drivers, both on and off the track. A simple YouTube search shows many videos showcasing his legendary temper, whether it was aimed at fellow drivers, reporters, or even his own team.
These days, however, Kurt Busch has mellowed out some, and has turned into one of NASCAR’s leaders. After leaving the #1 car at the end of last season, he signed a deal to come on board with 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. As the most senior driver in the series with 773 Cup Series races under his belt (currently 11th all-time), Kurt was brought in to be a mentor to his new teammate, driver of the #23, Bubba Wallace.
Busch, despite turning 44 later this August, still remains competitive in his 22nd Cup Series season. He has seven Top-10 finishes, five Top-5 finishes, and even a win earlier this season at Kansas Motor Speedway. He just came off a second-place finish this past weekend at Nashville Superspeedway.
“It was a tough weekend in general, just with all of the weather challenges,” Kurt said in a meeting with media Tuesday. “... just being out of rhythm, especially after an off-weekend. […] I think we were there for eight hours.”
“But for us, [crew chief] Billy Scott, he stayed cool, he stayed smart, everybody used the strength of each other. I’m just really proud of our group to battle through all of that."
The once fiery personality has morphed into a gifted leader at 23XI. He even told a story about running out of food in the hauler during the elongated rain delay. He had a stockpile of frozen pizzas brought out from his own personal motorhome to help feed the team “just to try and help everybody get through it all.”
When asked about what made him a good leader, and whether it was something that came naturally to him or if he’s had to work on it, he replied, “I would say both. I didn’t know how to manage a race when I first got into Cup. The 500-milers, a championship run, and then being a brand ambassador for so many different sponsors, then being a champion in this sport, you learn things. You want to give back to a community that’s given me so much. So I try to keep it real, try to keep it fun, and show the enthusiasm level for an old guy, yet teach the young guys that there’s responsibility with all of this.”
His teammate Bubba Wallace made some headlines after this past weekend’s race. When his pit crew lost him some crucial track position after yet another slow stop, he was heard on the radio cursing them all out, even going so far as to demand that crew chief Bootie Barker not speak to him for the remainder of the race.
As someone who is no stranger to these types of outbursts in the past, Kurt Busch said, “I’ve got my arm around him, I’m [saying to him]: ‘Hey man, I’ve been here, I’m right there with you. I’m a racer, I’m passionate, we just have to get to that next level of professionalism.’ I’ve made those mistakes, now he’s making those mistakes. […] Everybody is circling around on what the real core issue is, and that’s the consistency on the pit stops. So Bubba’s right, but we’ve just got to get that problem fixed, and we’ve got to handle it correctly.”
It’s a refreshing change of tone for the veteran driver, who now works under one of the greatest leaders of all time, Michael Jordan. “I thought that I had a strong work ethic when I got here [to 23XI], and he brings out even more in everybody here. That’s the spirit that I think 23XI really has behind it. The work ethic from [Michael Jordan] and the championship effort each and every day.”
That work ethic has paid off. Kurt Busch added, “even without [my win at] Kansas, this has been one of my most rewarding seasons with building the team up. Being part of something brand new, I’m going to leave my fingerprints on this when I’m done racing. The family atmosphere here at 23XI is what’s made this season fun. It’s energizing, and here we go, we’re just starting the second half.”