Kyle Busch could be driving for a new team in 2023.
It once seemed unfathomable that Busch could ever leave Joe Gibbs Racing. But the two-time champion and JGR have so far been unable to come to an agreement on a new contract for 2023 and beyond.
“We have to have contingency plans,” [Toyota Racing Development's] David Wilson said. “Rest assured, we’re thinking about every way this can go.”
Asked if he was confident of a deal getting done, or if he foresaw having to say goodbye to Busch at the end of the season, Wilson said: “I wish I could handicap it for you … but I just can’t. We’re in a bad place right now … we’ve got some tremendously heavy lifting in front of us.”
The reason for the impasse is simple. Sponsorship. Longtime sponsor M&M Mars said in December that 2022 would be its last season on Busch’s car. JGR and Toyota have been unable to land a company to sponsor Busch in 2023 and beyond.
Finding a sponsor for Busch should be pretty easy in theory. He’s one of the most recognizable drivers in NASCAR and also one of its best. He’s still in his prime and could win another title or three before his Cup Series career is over. He also owns a very successful Truck Series team that serves as Toyota's flagship entry in NASCAR's No. 3 series.
But nothing is easy in modern NASCAR. Costs have been increasing for teams for years while NASCAR’s TV viewership has done the opposite. Mars was simply the latest in a long line of major sponsors like Lowe’s, Target, Home Depot and UPS to leave NASCAR’s top series because the return on investment was no longer worth it.
Many of the companies that still remain in NASCAR sponsor teams thanks to heavy business-to-business connections. NAPA Auto Parts announced Wednesday that it had extended its contract with Hendrick Motorsports and Chase Elliott. HMS owner Rick Hendrick owns nearly 100 car dealerships throughout the United States; NAPA can get much more than a logo on Elliott’s car by doing a deal with Hendrick.
While JGR has been one of the most successful teams in the Cup Series over the past decade, it doesn’t provide the same B2B opportunities for sponsors like Hendrick and Team Penske do.
A Cup Series team shouldn’t have to provide side benefits for a Fortune 500 company to make a sponsorship worth it. But that’s where NASCAR is at the moment. The new car introduced in 2022 is designed to bring long-term costs down for teams. But those cost savings haven’t been realized so far; teams had to spend significant money to develop and build cars to meet the 2022 rules. The payoff is still down the road.
The increased costs in NASCAR over the years have led teams to cut expenses elsewhere. Older and more expensive drivers have been replaced by younger drivers who don’t command nearly as much in salary. Those cost savings can then be passed on to sponsors in the form of cheaper deals.
Since Busch has established himself as one of the best drivers in Cup Series history, he deserves to be paid like one. There’s no reason for him to take a significant pay cut in the prime of his career.
Yet Busch’s success may work against him in this weird NASCAR world. A potential sponsor can look at his salary requests and the costs of sponsoring a top-tier Cup team coupled with NASCAR’s overwhelming share of fans over 50 and easily wonder if a deal worth millions is worth it.
If Busch leaves Joe Gibbs Racing for another existing Cup Series team, Stewart-Haas Racing would be a logical guess. Hendrick Motorsports is at NASCAR’s four-car cap and Team Penske looks set with three competitive cars and drivers. Every other Cup team would be a clear step down from JGR.
SHR’s Aric Almirola is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the season and the team hasn’t announced a replacement for him. With a deep-pocketed co-owner like Gene Haas who has been willing to self-sponsor his team’s Cup cars for years, SHR certainly makes sense as a landing spot for Busch.
Tuesday was a significant day for NASCAR. The sanctioning body announced its first-ever street race in downtown Chicago for 2023. Hours later, NBC published a story featuring Wilson's remarks about Toyota and JGR's stalemate with Busch.
The announcement of the Chicago race is a continuation of NASCAR's attempt to lure new and younger fans with a willingness for races in unique locations. If the Chicago race is deemed a success like the exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum was in February, it's easy to see street course races becoming a part of the NASCAR of the future.
But Wilson's comments about the impasse are also harsh reminder of the present that NASCAR currently occupies. A present where anchor sponsors aren't easily replaced and where star drivers are left in contract limbo.