'A tough position': Kyle Busch heads to MIS with sponsor uncertainty, unsettled future
Kyle Busch has accomplished just about everything possible during his 20-year NASCAR career. He's won a pair of Cup titles and has 60 wins in the series.
Yet, he's still without a contract and sponsorship for next season in his No. 18 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.
It’s hard to believe that Busch’s future is in doubt at JGR with 224 wins over the three NASCAR series — Cup (60), Xfinity (102) and Camping World Trucks (62) — but his M&M's sponsorship is going away, just like Miller Lite, UPS, Home Depot and Lowe’s in the past several years.
After all, Busch is just 37, in the prime of his brilliant career and is a threat to win more championships with the right equipment.
More importantly, Busch, his wife Samantha and their young son, Brexton, safely escaped the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis after someone fired shots on Thursday, allowing him to be able to do what he loves, which is competing in Sunday’s FireKeepers 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
While Busch isn’t sure where he will be driving for next season, he is focused on the remainder of the 2022 season. He's sitting eighth in points and is locked in the 10-race playoffs due to his win at Bristol. He has five podium finishes (top three), including runner-up spots at Charlotte and Madison, Illinois.
Busch has experienced success on the 2-mile superspeedway at MIS, winning in 2011 and having nine top-five finishes in all.
The new next Gen Car has made things interesting for Cup drivers this season. So, what does Busch expect to see at MIS?
“I feel like we’ve had a really strong mile and a half program this year, the Vegas, Kansas, Charlotte-style racetracks. I feel like there is a similar setup to that, that you can go to Michigan with and be fast, so I’m hoping that bodes well for us,” Busch said in a phone interview with The News on Tuesday.
“I’ve won there before. I’d love to win there again. I haven’t since the repave happened in 2012. It’s aged itself a little bit better now, and the new Next Gen car will kind of play into that some as well and we’ll have a good, strong race out there.”
When asked what he has to do to be successful at MIS, Busch replied: “When they repaved it, it became really narrow. Before the repave, we were running all the way from the bottom to the wall, and it was really fun. Then they repaved it and it became single lane, and now they’ve been trying to widen it out the last few years.
“The wider the track gets, the better it is for the drivers to venture around and find something that will work. Also (it's better) to be able to have room to get around the car in front of them because you’re just sitting there following in a line — the second guy in line has less downforce than the first guy, the third guy less than second one and so on. You’d like to be able to have clean air on your car and be able to venture your way around the racetrack and carry some momentum. The biggest thing about Michigan is being fast through the turns. If you’re one mile faster through the turn, that’s three miles an hour faster on the straightaway, so that’s a big deal.”
So, does Busch like the new Next Gen car?
“It’s just way different,” Busch said. “This car is entirely different from the cars that we used to have that we’ve raced for a long, long time. The same things that made the old car go fast do not make this car go fast, that’s for sure, and we’ve kind of learned our lesson a few times this year with that.
“But this car is fine. It’s just unfortunately, to me, in my background of competition and owning a truck series team and being able to go out there and work on my guys and push my people to help develop our equipment and stuff, there is no development. You literally go to the store and buy the same pieces that everybody else buys and all you can do is work on the race car in the little finer details to be better than them. That will only equate to maybe a half a tenth on the racetrack to be perfect. It doesn’t equate to three-tenths or four-tenths like it used to, so there’s definitely not as much separation as it used to be.”
And on his sponsorship situation?
“It’s unfortunate, and we are in a tough position,” Busch said. “We’ve been fortunate for the last 15 years, myself and Joe Gibbs Racing, and we’ve had such a great partner with M&M's and they supported our deal. We never would have thought that we’d be in this predicament. They had been in the sport for 30 years and we figured they would be here for at least another 10 or until I’d retire.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen brands as big as M&M's — like Lowe’s or Home Depot or UPS or Dollar General or Target or Miller Lite — those brands were here and now they are no longer here. Unfortunately, the world marketplace, I don’t know why NASCAR didn’t work for them. But their bottom line, they were making money on NASCAR and I know that for a fact.
“Different people come in and take over and the regime kind of changes and they don’t understand or find the value of NASCAR, which we’re all trying to sell and show that it is worth the company’s money to be here. It’s tough right now.”
So, why does he feel sponsors are shying away from NASCAR?
“Sometimes people aren’t race fans. Sometimes companies feel like they got burned by a race team where they weren’t getting the fair value of what they thought they were supposed to be getting, so it’s like, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it again,’” Busch said. “I’ve heard all the horror stories. It’s just a really unfortunate landscape.
“You look at Major League Baseball or the NFL and those sports properties are able to withstand stronger on the footing of the TV deal. We have a TV deal. I feel like our race teams need to be able to stand stronger on that TV deal and when you get sponsorships in the door, that’s just icing on the cake. You can go racing without a sponsor, but if you have a sponsor, now you can spend a little bit more money on the best drivers, the best crew chiefs, the best engineers, you can better your team. That’s where I feel like the sport can look at a place to improve.”
Busch is a realist and knows it will be tough to get that sponsor before the end of the season.
“It takes everyone to sell. So if you’re asking if I’m trying through all of my Rolodex of contacts, yes, absolutely I am,” Busch said. “I’m trying to get in front of people. We’ve got some talks that have happened. We’ve got some meetings that are on the books, but this late in the game we’re all still trying.
"It takes three months just to get a face to face with somebody. So to be able to get through the face to face to then get a contract signed isn’t going to happen the next day after that. It’s just been a work in progress, and I continue to fight hard and try to help myself.”
With the talk of sponsors out of the way, is it easy for Busch to focus on the task at hand — contending for wins with his future in the back of his mind?
“It’s not that tough,” Busch said. “My thing is I’m a racer. I’ve grown up as a racer, been a racer. I didn’t grow up with sponsors as a kid, so all I knew is to go out there and do the best possible job I knew how to do, and that was to go and win races. When you’re winning races, the rest will take care of itself.
"That’s where our focus has to be right now, just making sure when you get to the racetrack that it’s time to put the thinking cap on and the focus on being able to go out there and do your job.”
There will be an open seat or two at the end of the season with Aric Almirola retiring from his No. 10 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing.
It’s just hard to imagine Busch no longer driving the No. 18 M&M's Toyota after competing for JGR the last 15 years.
FireKeepers Casino 400
Green flag: 3 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
What: 23rd of 36 races on the NASCAR Cup schedule
Support races: Xfinity Series — New Holland 250, 3:30 p.m. Saturday (USA); ARCA Menards — Henry Ford Health 200, 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Qualifying: Cup — 1:20 p.m. Saturday; Xfinity — 9:35 a.m. Saturday; ARCA Menards — 11:30 a.m. Saturday