Gotta Be the Shoes, Money
There’s a lot to unpack from Kurt Busch’s emotional win at Kansas Speedway. That victory, the 34th of Busch’s Cup Series career, mattered deeply to many — so much so that Busch’s car owner, Denny Hamlin, said Busch’s win at Kansas meant more to him than any one of his own victories. Hamlin has won the Daytona 500 three times.
Whether they admit it or not, there’s palpable internal pressure on athletes who join new teams, even if their resume is accomplished.
Maybe especially if their resume is accomplished.
Because when new teams hire veteran drivers, it is at least partly to glean information from his or her experience and expertise. 23XI Racing is counting on Busch to help flatten a mountainous learning curve, so that win Sunday was a bulldozer.
It was not just that he won. It was how he won. It wasn’t a fluke. It was a dominant performance in which Busch straight-up outran his brother Kyle Busch and defending Cup champion Kyle Larson.
Back at the Daytona 500 in February, Kurt Busch planted me in the passenger seat of the Toyota Camry official pace car, told me to buckle up tight, and mashed the throttle down pit road towards Turn 1 at the World Center of Racing. For three or four laps, he detailed (at 140 mph) his approach to joining 23XI, owned by Michael Jordan — the “23” half of 23XI — and Denny Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Prior to the opportunity to race for MJ and Hamlin, Busch told us on the Marty Smith Podcast that he’d considered retirement. He met with Hall of Fame driver Mark Martin about what retirement looks and feels like.
The evolution from void to joy. Busch even shot a video driving off into the Key West sunset at 200 mph on 7-Mile Bridge, announcing he was done.
He’d already accomplished so much. He’s a champion (2004). He won the Daytona 500 (2017). He didn’t want to just ride around and collect a paycheck — he was past that. He wanted to compete for wins.
“I called Mark Martin and I said Mark, why did you keep coming back? What was your fire? What was your desire? What was your reasoning?” Busch told us. “And (Martin) said, ‘Kurt I’m a racer, just like you — and the phone kept ringing. That’s why I came back.’
“So Mark Martin helped push me back. And Mark’s a guy I always looked up to and raced with at Roush, and all the signs were pointing to, let’s go.”
Then he received a text from Hamlin. All it said was this: You ain’t done.
Busch knew MJ was a winner. He knew Hamlin was a winner. He knew that racing a startup car would include headaches and heartaches. But the opportunity to drive for the GOAT was too good to pass up.
During our conversation on the podcast, Busch explained to me that he’d made a pact with MJ. He bought a coveted Jordan rookie card and asked MJ to sign it, and hold onto it until Busch delivered a victory for his new boss.
Sunday at Kansas Speedway — while driving the Jordan Brand car, no less — he did just that.
Busch’s car is No. 45, a number that has long been special to Jordan. I learned this watching the Come Fly With Me VHS tape a thousand times as a kid, to the point of memorization. Jordan’s older brother, Larry, wore No. 45 at Laney High School in Wilmington, NC. So when it came time for Michael to choose a number, he chose half of Larry’s number — 23.
Then, when Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time in 1993, and chose to make an attempt at minor league baseball, he chose No. 45 for the Birmingham Barons. When he returned to the NBA in 1994, he wore 45. When he started a second Cup program to team with Bubba Wallace’s No. 23, Jordan wanted 45.
Now, Kurt Busch has planted the 45 flag in Cup Series Victory Lane. There is no way to define, describe or explain the pressure that relieved just then. And if I were Busch, I’d be asking MJ for really good wine, and that autographed rookie card back.
Double Deuce Double Down
Joey Logano is not backing down from any potential retaliation or feud with William Byron. In fact, he offered an ultimatum: “If (Byron) wants to keep going back-and-forth, I’ll keep swinging. And I can promise you … I’ll go bigger every time.”
Woooooo boy! Light the wick and pass the popcorn!
Let’s revisit Logano’s win at Darlington for context:
Logano dumped Byron to win at Darlington on May 8. Nobody should be surprised in the least, and for myriad reasons. Logano is very aggressive and has been throughout his career. He does not apologize for it. He’s had run-ins with everybody from Ryan Newman to Kevin Harvick to Matt Kenseth, of all people.
He believes he’s standing his ground, refusing to be pushed around or, as he puts it, bullied. I get the rationale. Don’t tread on me. If you let anybody shove you around, everybody will shove you around.
But the more times it happens — and it’s happened with Logano more than most — the less latitude you get from competitors. At this point, Logano doesn’t have much latitude. He does not seem to care. He’s a champion with tremendous talent and great equipment. He’s not interested in being your friend. He’s interested in beating you.
I believe Byron will pay him back when it hurts. (For what it’s worth, many in the industry disagree with me). He called Logano an idiot and a moron. Race drivers remember every single competitor who does them wrong, to even the slightest degree. They’ll harbor resentment for years, and eventually they give what they believe they got. Race drivers remember who cut them off, who flipped them off, and certainly who pissed them off.
Logano believes Byron stuffed him in the fence earlier in the race, and regardless of intent, the replay does show Byron pushing up the racetrack off the corner and forcing Logano into the wall. At that moment, Logano says sportsmanship no longer applied. It seems Logano could have passed Byron without slamming him. Many analysts were outspoken about that. Logano was faster. But he said Byron made the bump-and-run-to-win an easy decision.
This is also a product of the championship format. Wins are vital in the quest to qualify for the playoffs, and they are very difficult to come by. In 13 races this season there have been 11 different winners, Byron and Ross Chastain the only multi-race winners. Parity is at an all time high in the Cup Series, so there is an element of desperation to take advantage of the moment when it presents itself, fallout be damned.
It was also Darlington. A lot of dudes would wreck their momma to win at that place.
Logano was asked at Kansas where they stand now.
“I stand by the same stuff I said last week. I got fenced, i retaliated and won the race. I won’t get pushed around. In my book, we’re back to even.”
Stay tuned, my friends.