DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch, who became the first champion of the NASCAR Cup Series‘ playoff era, announced Saturday that he will retire from Cup Series competition, ending a driving career that spanned two decades-plus.
Busch has not returned to racing since suffering a concussion in a crash on July 23, 2022, at Pocono Raceway. He had announced last fall during an emotional press conference at his hometown track of Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he would step away from a full-time driving career in 2023.
Saturday, he said another version of farewell at Daytona International Speedway, in a packed media center attended by NASCAR executives and officials, plus fellow drivers, including his brother, Kyle.
“As I transition out of the driver’s seat, I can’t help but feel incredibly blessed to have spent the amount of time I did as a driver in NASCAR, and I could never have imagined that growing up as a blue-collar kid from Las Vegas,” Busch said. “So many people have been part of my journey. I want to thank the fans, my family, friends, sponsors and team members. Thanks to everyone who has taught me the different things around the motorsports world, and also for those who have had to put up with me. And I want to just thank again, everyone that continues to push me to strive for success in this sport. It’s time for a new journey, and I’m excited to get started.”
The 45-year-old driver has remained with his 23XI Racing team after the accident in a consulting role and as a mentor for current teammates Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, a role he said would continue in the years after his full-time driving days. He has also stayed on as a brand ambassador for Monster Energy, a personal and team sponsor.
In May, Busch was named to the list of NASCAR‘s 75 Greatest Drivers in recognition of the sport‘s diamond-anniversary season, joining his younger brother, Kyle, as a recipient of the honor. He was further recognized in pre-race ceremonies at Darlington Raceway later that month, and he told reporters that his health was improving and he was still hopeful of being medically cleared to return.
Saturday at Daytona, Busch noted that he was not at 100% of his ability to compete, but remained upbeat that he might one day race in some form of motorsport.
“Again, it’s not one moment that’s led to this,” Busch said. “It’s a few different factors, and my body is having a battle with Father Time. I’ve had arthritis ever since I can remember. My gout has flared up so much that I can barely walk on some days. Just pushing to get through physical therapy and to continue the workouts. I remember last summer, I was trying to not show that emotion and I barely could even walk to the car at Dover, because I had to have some shots pre-race just so that I could move my knee and move my feet. Those are those moments where things were starting to add up before things happened at Pocono.
“So, Father Time. I’m 45 years old. I’m very happy, complacent, and there’s nothing that I look back on and regret about having this opportunity at the top level of NASCAR.”
Busch‘s Hall of Fame-caliber career was marked by dramatic highs and fiery lows, but his driving talent and tendency toward winning were constants. He collected 34 Cup Series victories, a figure that ties current points leader Martin Truex Jr. for 25th on the circuit‘s all-time win list.
Among Busch‘s wins tally were crown-jewel triumphs that included the Daytona 500 in 2017 and the Coca-Cola 600 and All-Star Race on consecutive weekends seven years earlier. He was also a six-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway, which was the site of his first Cup Series victory in 2002.
Kurt Busch rose to national prominence after learning his craft racing go-karts, and then competing in Dwarf and Legends Cars at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring. He won the championship in NASCAR‘s former Southwest Tour in 1999 and was hired by Hall of Fame team owner Jack Roush for a Craftsman Truck Series ride the following year.
After finishing second in the standings in his lone season in trucks, Busch quickly jumped into the Cup Series as a rookie in 2001. He became a premier-series winner the next year, starting a streak of 10 seasons with at least one victory.
Foremost among those winning campaigns was his title march in 2004, the first year for a new playoff system to determine the Cup Series champion. The inaugural format featured 10 title-eligible drivers in the final 10 races with the crown awarded to the driver with the most cumulative points. Busch won the opening playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and headed the points standings nearly the rest of the way. He recovered from a detached wheel in the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale to best Jimmie Johnson by eight points and teammate Jeff Gordon by 16.
“We beat the best of the best over 10 races,” Busch told reporters, “and to have my name along the best names in history, it means so much to me.”
Busch‘s winning ways early in his career came with a brash style that rattled fellow drivers, NASCAR officials, the media and his team owners. Multiple altercations led to penalties, probations and severed ties with the team owners who employed him, Roush and Roger Penske. He was also suspended for the first three races of 2015 after a legal ruling on a criminal complaint alleging domestic abuse was filed after his split with former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll.
After two winless seasons (2012-13) with underfunded teams, Busch landed with Stewart-Haas Racing when that organization expanded. He won in each of his five seasons there, and he continued that streak with Chip Ganassi Racing with one victory each year from 2019 to 2021.
Busch‘s move to 23XI Racing came as the organization co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan grew to a two-car operation last season. He was tapped as the driver of the No. 45 Toyota, and he scored a dominant win in their 13th race together, driving a Jordan Brand-sponsored car to Victory Lane at Kansas Speedway.
“It started when we decided to expand, and for me it was a year earlier than I thought we would,” said 23XI Racing president Steve Lauletta, “but when somebody like Kurt Busch becomes available, you jump at the chance.”
Eight races after his Kansas win, Busch lost control of his No. 45 Camry during a qualifying attempt at the 2.5-mile Pocono track, and the car made heavy rear-end contact with the third turn‘s outside retaining wall. After a medical evaluation in the infield care center, Busch was not cleared to race the next day. Ty Gibbs, then an Xfinity Series regular, filled in for 23XI at Pocono and eventually for the remainder of the season.
Before the postseason began last year, Busch withdrew his request for a waiver that would have kept him playoff-eligible had he been cleared to return. At Las Vegas last October, he announced that he would end his tenure in the Cup Series as a full-time driver, adding that with clearance he had hoped to participate in “a few select races” this season.
“I know I am not 100% in my ability to go out and race at the top level in the NASCAR Cup Series,” Busch said then. “These are the best of the best drivers, and lately I haven‘t felt my best. My long-term health is priority No. 1, and I don‘t feel committing at this point to compete for a championship next year is in my best interest or the best interest of the team.”
Reddick took his place in the No. 45 Toyota this season. Busch provided an update before the 2023 season at Daytona in February, saying that he still struggled with balance and eye movement, and that physical therapy regularly drained him both from a physical and emotional standpoint.
Busch’s influence remained strong with 23XI and he was a fixture at the track and the shop. He said Saturday that he would stay with the team “as long as they’ll allow me,” and Lauletta drew parallels with the role that former IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti held during his time at Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I watched what he started doing and talked to Kurt about, ‘could we do the same thing with you?’ and he was all for it,” Lauletta said. “And so now since that time, he continues to come to the race shop a lot, he works with drivers on his own, has his direct text exchanges with them, works with the crew chiefs, and then works with our partners. So he’s just a great teammate and brings a lot to what we’re trying to build, which is a championship-caliber organization.”
David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development (TRD) USA president, noted that Busch held the now-rare distinction of winning with four manufacturers — Ford, Dodge, Chevrolet and finally Toyota. He also noted the contributions he made to the many teams he drove for during his career.
“You talk to any one of those organizations, and they’ll all say the same thing: He made us better,” Wilson said. “So again, I love the fact that Kurt is not going anywhere, he’s still going to be around. We’re still going to have a relationship with him as an OEM. He’s going to continue to be an ambassador for Toyota, and so we’re not saying goodbye officially. We’re going to support him through this next chapter.”
Busch said before this season that he still held out hope that he would return to the cockpit to race again one day but added that he had accepted his potential fate if his career was indeed at an end. Saturday, he was able to reflect on his long career at NASCAR’s top level and offer his appreciation.
“There’s plenty of stories and fun and wins and losses,” Busch said. “But thank you to NASCAR for giving me a fair shake at this. There’s a bunch of cool trophies at the house, lots of memories, and I hope to give back in all the ways that I can moving forward.”