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The 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Kurt Busch, is the newest addition to the Toyota camp after signing a multi-year deal to compete for 23XI Racing. (NASCAR photo)

Busch: Checks & Balances

Kaylee Bryson thought a mistake had been made.

One day in January, the 21-year-old USAC midget racer checked a printed schedule that all of Toyota Racing’s development drivers received. She looked at what was listed for Jan. 19.

“Meeting with Kurt Busch?” she thought to herself. “That’s like a typo or something.”

It was not.

She and roughly a dozen other TRD development drivers — including Corey Heim and Drew Dollar — would get the chance to meet with the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, the newest addition to the Toyota camp after he signed a multi-year deal to compete for 23XI Racing.

The pow-wow occurred at the TRD Performance Center in Salisbury, N.C.

Busch was generous with his time. Originally scheduled as a 30-minute session, Busch held court for an hour, giving advice and answering questions from Toyota’s racing future.

“I was like, ‘This is literally so cool’,” said Bryson, who in January became the first woman to make the main event of the Chili Bowl Nationals. “This guy’s just sitting right here in front of us, giving all these tips to us. It felt really cool just to be a part of it.”

For Busch, the 43-year-old driver oddly felt a kinship with the batch of young people. Like them, he’s a “new guy” to Toyota.

“I love putting on the rookie hat every now and then,” Busch said during Daytona Speedweeks. “It’s to show this group of kids, these young drivers, that I’ve been through ups, I’ve been through downs. It was to give them a sense of my heart and my sole and my commitment level — it’s not just eat, sleep and race. It’s beyond that.

“It was to give that motivation to the kids.”

Busch admits that just a few years ago, he “wouldn’t have known what to say” to the group of drivers who sat in a semi-circle around him.

With over 20 years of racing under his belt, Kurt Busch is now seen as a respected elder statesman of the sport. (HHP/Harold Hinson photo)

“I wouldn’t have known what role to really find, but now I’m not afraid to speak my mind and to be a mentor with a little bit of sarcasm to have a little fun with it,” Busch said. “To really teach them you can win the race before the green flag even drops with your preparation, your mental preparation, working out, PR, social, your whole team. There’s ways to win without even grabbing that checkered flag.”

Kurt Busch?

A mentor?

This is the same Busch who infamously disrespected Dr. Jerry Punch, Bob Pockrass, Jamie Little and others during a stretch from 2011 to ’12.

The same Busch whose temperamental outbursts got him put on probation, suspended and even lost rides over the course of his 20-plus-year career.

Maybe that makes him the right choice.

If anyone can give advice to young drivers about how to handle low points, it’s Busch.

A decade on from his high-profile meltdowns, the 23XI Racing driver is seen and spoken of in a different light: as a respected elder statesman of the sport.

“I think he has obviously mellowed out,” said Kevin Harvick, who came into the Cup Series at the same time as Busch in the early 2000s. The two were teammates with Stewart-Haas Racing from 2014-’18.

Harvick called Busch “one of my favorite teammates.”

“He knows so much about the race car,” Harvick said. “He is so detailed in his analysis of things that go on that whoever’s team he is on he is an asset and a benefit because he will just analyze things so deeply and get in there and work on the things that he needs to work on to get better and figure out why he is not where he wants to be or why he is where he is … When you are in there digging with him every day there is still that same fire and passion that goes with the sport.

“It is just controlled differently in the public eye and the things outside of the race car. Kurt is just a hard-core racer, but my favorite thing about Kurt is how much he knows and will analyze the car.”

When Denny Hamlin set out to add a second car to 23XI Racing, the only real option he considered was Busch, who has won at least one race in each of the last eight seasons.

However, Hamlin still did his homework. He met with three of Busch’s former teammates to get a better sense of him. Hamlin said they all gave Busch glowing recommendations.

Hamlin finally got to see what Busch was capable of during one of the Next Gen car organizational tests in late 2021.

“I underrated his talent,” Hamlin said. “He’s not good, he’s great. He was faster than all of us the whole test. He’s everything that his previous teammates said he was gonna be so far.”

Hamlin had more praise for his new driver.

“He’s the ageless wonder,” Hamlin said. “He reminds me of Mark Martin. The guy’s still fast, it doesn’t matter how old he gets.”

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Denny Hamlin’s top choice for a second driver for 23XI Racing was Kurt Busch. (NASCAR photo)

The invocation of Martin, who raced in the Cup Series until he was 54, makes sense in other ways. At the dawn of Busch’s car, he was teammates with Martin at Roush Racing from 2000-’05.

Busch leaned on Martin for advice while finding his way in the sport.

“Mark Martin is the guy I trusted the most and it was a blessing to race with him and to have him as a teammate,” Busch said in March at Circuit of The Americas.

Busch said it was Martin who conveyed one of the lessons he passed on to the development drivers earlier this year.

“There’s the highs and highs, there’s the lows and lows,” Busch said. “Try to find a level ground. And it’s really hard to teach that to a young person because it took me a while to digest that.”

Even now, Busch considers himself a work in progress in that department.

“Still struggling with it,” he said with a laugh. “It matters how you digest it all in different phases of your careers. And then the big thing with Mark is he just always focused on his team and his car setup and was able to separate all of the other political things or media or other things he separated that very diligently.

“So that’s what I tried to coach the kids. ‘When you’re racing, you’re racing. When you’re doing (something else), you’re doing that and (the change) can happen that quick.’”

The first real test of Busch at 23XI Racing came during practice for the Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in February.

Mike Wheeler, the competition director for 23XI Racing, got to see Busch’s influence at work.

“When you sign up for a veteran teammate, one that’s won championship races before, you’re always waiting for them to give your cars a rating of better or worse than Bubba (Wallace), right? So I was ready for that,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he wasn’t ready for, and was surprised by the results, of how Busch helped his new teammate.

Wallace had been one of the slowest cars in practice and was in a funk.

“Kurt had an OK practice, similar setup,” Wheeler said. “Got it to be handling more like he wanted. … Kurt, the veteran that he was, went over and said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve been there. Here’s what I got.’

“They hashed out what Kurt was feeling, which was very similar to Bubba’s feeling and Bubba realized he wasn’t in the boat by himself.”

That night Wallace improved, posting a much faster qualifying speed than what he showed in practice.

“In the past, I don’t know last year (with) being a single-car team by himself if (Wallace) would have had the same result,” Wheeler said, “But I think having a teammate with you, pat on your back, bringing you back up, it’s just reassurance that having a teammate like Kurt can make the whole place better.”

Wallace is in his fifth full-time Cup Series season. So far, he considers Busch a validating presence at 23XI Racing.

“Kurt’s coming in and putting his foot down on a lot of things and it’s actually fun to sit back and watch,” Wallace said. “(When it comes to) some things that may seem out of whack, I’m the new guy. (I’ll say) ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem right.’ (The team says) ‘We’ll be all right.’ Kurt comes in and says, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ Really? I said that a year ago.”

Still finding his way as a mentor, Busch is aware of the role he can serve for Wallace and for others.

“With Bubba, he was on a single-car team basically his whole Cup career, over at (Richard Petty Motorsports) and then over at 23XI,” Busch told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in March. “He never had a checks and balances guy.”