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‘My long term health is priority No. 1’: Kurt Busch retires as full-time NASCAR competitor

Updated October 15, 2022 - 4:20 pm

When Kurt Busch sat down Saturday morning to update the media on his health and his racing future, it felt as if he had come full circle.

“Twenty-eight years ago, I stood here in this area of the desert, literally, and took a glamour shot with my first race car that I built with my dad,” said the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion from Las Vegas in announcing he was retiring from full-time competition.

“Racing is all I’ve ever known. My passion, my work ethic and my persistence has enabled me to reach all my dreams.”

Busch, 44, won 34 races during a 23-year career in the marquee Cup Series, including the 2017 Daytona 500 and the 2020 South Point 400 on a hometown oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that was carved from the desert he mentioned. But he hasn’t raced since suffering a concussion in a July crash at Pocono, Pennsylvania, that eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs and championship contention.

“I know I’m not at 100 percent in my ability to go out and race at the top level of the NASCAR Cup Series,” he said, reading from a statement in a halting voice. “These are the best of the best drivers, and lately I haven’t felt my best. The doctors have come to the conclusion that it’s best for me to shut it down for the season.

“As I continue to focus on my health toward being cleared, I’ll be stepping away from full-time competition in 2023. My long-term health is priority No. 1. And I don’t feel committing to compete for a championship is in my best interests or the best interests of the team.”

Busch had a year remaining on his contract with the 23XI Racing team co-owned by Cup Series star Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan. Tyler Reddick, who already had signed with 23XI for the 2024 season, will take Busch’s place behind the wheel of the No. 45 Toyota a year ahead of schedule after his contract at Richard Childress Racing was bought out.

The qualifying wreck in July — Busch backed into the wall in the new Next Gen car that has been far less forgiving than last year’s model — hastened his decision. But he had hinted at retiring more than once in recent seasons.

”To be frank and to smile a bit, I’ve wrecked a lot of (expletive) in my life,” Busch said. “Old cars, new cars … so over the years, things add up. Different wrecks this year have been tough and a grind each week to get back to 100 percent. These hits (in the Next Gen car) are tough, but the hits in the past were tough (too).

“I’m at peace where things are. I was close to the end of my contract anyhow. So it just happened a little sooner. I’ve just changed the course a little bit, to write the final chapter. And if I’m cleared (physically), maybe you’ll see me at a few select races.”

For much of his early career, Busch rubbed a lot of NASCAR fans — as well as many drivers — the wrong way. He had dozens of altercations on the track and several away from it, including one with younger brother and two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch that festered for months until their grandmother brokered a truce over Thanksgiving dinner.

“Young kid from Las Vegas that made it to the bigs, I wasn’t quite prepared for the corporate side of it and the professional side of it,” Kurt Busch said. “I was very raw when I started. (But) the cockiness I had early on turned to confidence.”

As he gained maturity and the victories continued to mount, Busch ultimately became a fan favorite, a well-respected rival among his peers and an ambassador for the sport.

“He’s had a phenomenal career,” said Kyle Busch, who will line up 18th for Sunday’s South Point 400. “To not be able to come back full time is doctor’s orders, but I hope he can still make peace with it all and be happy with whatever he’s able to do going forward.

“He’s healthy, he’ll be able to be normal — as normal as a Busch is — for the rest of his life, which is good.”

Championship leader and second-generation driver Chase Elliott recalled Kurt Busch’s dominance at Bristol, Tennessee, that produced six wins when Elliott’s father, Bill, still was racing.

“I remember being a kid, and how everybody in the garage had such great respect for what he was doing out there,” said the 2020 NASCAR champion. “And obviously in my time racing with him, I’ve enjoyed being around him. He’s always been super nice to me — one of those veterans that is always willing to help and lend a hand and make it better for the next generation.”

You can add young championship contender and Toyota stablemate Christopher Bell to that group of admirers.

“He did a great job steering us in the right direction with the NextGen piece of the puzzle,” said the former sprint car ace from Oklahoma, who will start Sunday’s race from the inside of Row 4. “He’s just a really good leader, and I’m thankful that I got to call him somewhat of a teammate.”

Busch said if he is eventually cleared to drive he will continue to pursue a bucket list of opportunities that include international sports car racing. He has earned praise for his work in the broadcast booth and said he would meet with TV officials at LVMS this weekend to discuss expanding his role behind the microphone. He also plans to continue mentoring 23XI teammate Bubba Wallace.

When asked about driving for myriad NASCAR race teams during his two-plus decades in the sport and leaving each in a better place in the estimation of the experts, he thought about it and sighed.

“I just always gave it my best,” Busch said about how he would like to be remembered. “Always searching for the checkered flag.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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