*originally published in The Athletic by Jordan Bianchi on Jan. 18, 2024
Kyle Busch experienced an indoctrination into Richard Childress Racing’s culture last week when he and team owner Richard Childress went on a hunting trip to North Carolina’s outer banks. This marked the first time Busch had gone on a hunting trip in years and the first time he had ever gone with Childress, an avid outdoorsman.
Duck hunting with the boss isn’t necessarily noteworthy, but doing so with Childress is considered a bit of a special privilege. It also encapsulates the many new things Busch has experienced over the last year since signing with RCR following a highly successful 15-year run at Joe Gibbs Racing that included two NASCAR Cup Series championships.
But as Busch has learned and embraced over the past 12 months, change can be a good thing.
He’s proven to his detractors that he made the right decision in joining RCR. He proved he could win big with a team other than JGR. And he proved that any skepticism whether he could adjust to life at RCR — with a new team owner, crew chief, manufacturer and everything else that comes along with a new beginning — was largely hogwash.
“You’re always wondering, is the grass really greener on the other side?” Busch said this week. “But you just kind of get in there, you get your hands dirty, you get to work, you put your head down and you focus on the task at hand and that’s to go out and make yourself better, make everybody around you better and go be successful.
“It’s been a pretty good fit right out of the gate.”
Change has also come in the response Busch hears when his name is mentioned during driver introductions. The loud chorus of boos from fans he used to hear has been replaced by cheers. For a driver who before last year spent most of his career being jeered, the change is much welcomed.
Busch no longer being public enemy No. 1 among fans can be attributed to a few factors. First, he’s now with a team in RCR that has long been a crowd favorite but also one hasn’t won a Cup title in 30 years. And with Busch now in the fold, RCR stands a significantly better chance of snapping its skid that dates back to Dale Earnhardt winning the 1994 championship.
Busch won three times during the 2023 season, at one point ranking as high as second in the regular-season standings. More victories slipped away due to factors within Busch’s control, miscues by the team or mere bad luck.
“We started well, but we didn’t end as well as we wanted to,” Randall Burnett, Busch’s crew chief, said. “We won three races fairly early in the season, but we just had some problems. And though we had some fast cars, we didn’t get the results, didn’t get the finishes we wanted at the end of the season.”
The other reality is that Busch is no longer the brash upstart whose success came at the expense of popular grizzled veterans. Entering his 19th season, he’s become the veteran trying to fend off NASCAR’s next crop of future stars. Now, winning doesn’t feel as seamless.
Going from disliked to liked is a situation similar to the likes of Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, all Cup champions who were once booed only to gain more popularity as they transitioned into the second act of their careers. It’s almost a right of passage in NASCAR.
“I have noticed that, and I love it,” Busch said of the change in fan response. “I think it’s cool. I think it’s great. I’ve seen it happen with a lot of other big-name drivers over the course of their career as well, too.
“I feel as though the move from JGR Toyota to RCR Chevrolet was a big deal in the fan base and the eyes of casual and avid fans, if you will. Just kind of like, ‘OK, well, we love this. This is a great mix.’ … People are just excited for me to be a part of the legacy of RCR. And they love the legacy of RCR and Richard and everything that they’re about, so they’ve given me my fair shot, and I think it’s going well.”
Said Burnett: “I think he’s come a long way. I think this change was good for him.”
Already, RCR has sold all the primary sponsorship on Busch’s Chevrolet for the entirety of the 2024 season. The team will announce Thursday that Zone Nicotine Pouches is the latest company to sign on, becoming the anchor partner for the No. 8 team.
It’s significant for Busch, whose time at his previous team ended in large part due to a lack of sponsorship. For the entirety of his 15 years at JGR, Mars, Inc. (primarily through its M&M’s brand) held the role as Busch’s anchor sponsor, but after the company announced prior to the 2022 season that it was withdrawing its support, JGR couldn’t secure an adequate replacement.
The prolonged search for a new sponsor further complicated negotiations, eventually reaching a point where both sides began seriously exploring all their options. Amid the uncertainty, RCR stepped in, with Busch representing the championship-caliber driver they lacked. They had no concerns about whether they could find sufficient sponsorship. Such confidence proved accurate.
“Did JGR try hard enough to sell me?” Busch said. “My answer to that is no. I’m being frank, and it might bite me in the butt, but they put all their eggs in one basket with the Oracle deal. And the way the Oracle deal got introduced to us was really, really weird. … (Oracle) had just signed a contract for $500 million or something with (Formula One team) Red Bull. So I’m like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to do a NASCAR deal. Not a chance.’ So I told those guys, ‘Look, you got to look elsewhere. You got to look outside. We got to call everybody else.’ … (Instead) they offered me a contract to race there and they weren’t going to have sponsorship on the car, but I didn’t feel like that was fair for the 15 years that I was there; I didn’t want Joe putting his own money into the program.
“So I decided that it would be better served for me to go somewhere that had a sales team that got sales for (RCR drivers) Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon and everything else that’s happened at RCR over the years. I mean, we’re still knocking sponsors down, it seems, and bringing them in.”
Life may be much different for Busch than it was a year ago, when he wasn’t entirely certain how things would unfold at RCR, yet some things never change. Atop this list is Busch’s desire to win.
He doesn’t just want to win for himself. A title would be the first time Childress has held the championship trophy in 30 years. This is a long stretch for a proud team owner, and Burnett says that Childress has made his expectations clear.
When asked what it would mean to be the one to end RCR’s drought, Busch pauses. The significance isn’t lost on him. He fully understands what it would mean for him and the team he now calls home.
“I really thought about it when we won Gateway,” Busch said about his victory last June. “I was like, ‘Damn, OK, we can do this. We got this if we can get three more wins through the rest of the year. Shit, that’s going to be six wins on the year.’”
The third championship for Busch and seventh for RCR didn’t materialize last year. But three wins in his first season while adapting to a completely different situation offers a nice building block pointing toward an even better 2024. “We learned a lot,” Busch said. “I learned a ton about new people and the new organization that I’m with. It was just interesting to put all that together and build on a better perspective.”