Why Kurt Busch is a perfect driver for Michael Jordan’s team
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Nothing against Kurt Busch, but few would consider him the most hip of race car drivers.
He’ll turn 44 later this year. He is in the twilight of his racing career. He could be considered rebellious but not in a 20-something way.
Yet he was the perfect driver to have the Air Jordan logo on his hood and uniform for the race Sunday at Kansas, and he was the perfect driver to represent the team’s co-owner, Michael Jordan.
"The fact is Kurt Busch wins," Denny Hamlin said.
Hamlin, the Cup driver who is also Jordan’s good friend and who convinced the NBA great to co-own a race team, thought he could build an organization around Busch, who could also serve as a mentor to their initial hire, Bubba Wallace.
Busch had 21 years in the sport and had won for four organizations before he joined 23XI Racing in the offseason. It took him 13 races to win a race at 23XI, with a victory Sunday at a place (Kansas Speedway) where he was winless in 32 tries.
"It doesn't matter about any previous history at this racetrack," Hamlin said. "We know when we show up, if we've got a fast car, he is capable of winning. That's what I saw in Kurt Busch.
"I told him, step one — before we talked about how we're going to fund it, how we're going to do anything — is I need you to drive it. That's all I care about is I need you. We'll worry about funding it. We'll worry about the crew chief later. I just need to know that you believe in this."
He had led nine laps all season entering the race Sunday, but that didn’t matter. Because Hamlin believes in Busch. And Busch believes he can win — partly because he ranks 25th all time in career Cup victories (now with 34) and also because he has a résumé that includes a Daytona 500 and a Cup title.
"Each place [I’ve raced at], each sequence, I'm just happy to have a ride and happy to give my best," Busch said. "Early in my career, it was all about me, me, me, and now I've understood this is a team, and every element is super important.
"So I was able to do my job today. My team put me out there in position."
It's worth noting that Busch has also won races for four different manufacturers. He is known for his ability to diagnose a race car and make suggestions, which can be a blessing or a curse if he doesn’t have faith in the changes that are made (or not made).
His can elevate his teammates with his knowledge of race car setups.
He can also get frustrated, and it’s not like he’ll love looking at the standings and seeing himself 18th overall.
"We've had multiple races this year that we've felt we've had top-5 cars and, in some cases, the fastest car throughout different parts of it," crew chief Billy Scott said. "It's just needing to get up there and execute correctly and get the track position and keep it."
With the win, Busch should make the playoffs (unless he struggles and there are more winners than spots in the 16-driver playoff field). It would be his 10th consecutive year making NASCAR’s version of the postseason, which he has failed to qualify for only three times in his career.
It's that consistent strength that made him a driver worthy of the Jordan logos, even if it also made his car owner jealous (Hamlin is a Jordan athlete, but the team he drives for, Joe Gibbs Racing, has other affiliations).
"I’m jealous I wasn’t the one to go drive it," Hamlin said. "I’ve been with those guys for over 12 years and never got to drive one. It’s just so big for Michael."
Now Hamlin and Busch are headed to a golf tournament at Jordan’s this week.
"We’re going to go over to Michael’s and tear his house up," Hamlin said with a laugh.
They probably won’t do that. But they know how much the win means.
"Kurt ran a great race today, and I’m so happy for him, the 45 crew and our entire 23XI Racing team," Jordan said in a statement. "This win showed why Kurt is a champion and why we brought him on board."
The win could also give Busch a little extra swagger — maybe even more than he had while talking about his uniform the day before the race.
"You’ve got to wear it with confidence," he quipped. "You’ve got to know what the Jordan brand is about. It’s about winning, and it’s about being up front.
"It’s that newness feel. The imagery is very powerful."
What’s more powerful than imagery? Winning a race and knowing you can beat the competition, including your co-owner, who finished fourth.
"I've obviously been excited for [winning] the Daytona 500," said Hamlin, who has three Daytona 500 victories as a driver. "But I just don't know why this one just feels bigger to me.
"I think a lot of it is because I watched it live. ... I got emotional when I hugged Billy at the pit box because I see how excited they are, and I know how hard they work. This is a family. Inside that small building we're in right now, it is a family. We are all very, very tight, so the wins just feel bigger for that reason."
Thinking out loud
Does NASCAR have a tire issue or a team issue when it comes to pushing it on loads and air pressure and camber on the tires?
Probably a little bit of both.
Goodyear had the enormous task of developing new tires for the Next Gen car with a bigger wheel (18 inches in diameter vs. 15 inches) while trying to keep a similar circumference. And the changes NASCAR kept making to the aero package for the car in November and December made it even more of a challenge.
The issues teams had at Kansas could be considered growing pains. But the troubling aspect is that the teams never really found an answer Sunday.
The Joe Gibbs Racing teams had issues at Las Vegas and thought they had it mostly corrected, but Martin Truex Jr. had an issue with a setup the team thought was conservative.
All three manufacturers and several organizations had similar problems, a sign that there is more work to do on both sides. It isn’t easy for Goodyear to change the tire — and a Goodyear executive said he thinks this is the best tire for these loads — but hopefully everyone can work together to find an answer.
Stat of the day
Kurt Busch’s 34 Cup wins have come at 18 different tracks.
They said it
"My biggest thing is I just don't need Hail Mary passes every day. I'm OK with just running the ball sometimes. That's how you win races, is you manage your risk. When you've got the fastest car, just keep me in the game." — Denny Hamlin
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!