AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Busch walked up to his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota, wrapped with thousands of pictures of race fans, prior to the Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday and couldn’t look at it.
For the final time, Busch strapped into the No. 18 car and represented Joe Gibbs Racing, M&M’s and Toyota. Come December 31, he will head north to Welcome, N.C. and compete for Richard Childress Racing, piloting the No. 8 Chevrolet.
The end of an era.
Thank u to Coach, everyone at JGR, the Mars Family, n Norm Miller. Things will look a bit different next yr, but I’ll always be appreciative of what we’ve accomplished n the relationships we’ve built over the past 15 yrs. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/QkqwUSa3NS
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) November 6, 2022
“It’s hard, man. It’s not easy,” an emotional Busch said post race. “I wish it wasn’t what it is, but I’m going to miss a lot of our fun folks that we got to spend a lot of time with over the years. Look forward to new adventures.”
Gibbs was also emotional before the race due to the unexpected death of Coy Gibbs, executive at JGR. For the past 15 years, Gibbs was family to Busch.
The race was on the backburner for Busch for those reasons. He still had one of his better finishes of the playoffs, finishing seventh, the best of the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet.
Busch started the year off with a plethora of speed. The No. 18 team had 11 top-10 finishes in the opening 15 races of the season. His lone win of the season came by “backing into” it at the Bristol dirt race, when Chase Briscoe wiped out himself and Tyler Reddick on the final lap.
That was the lone bright spot.
The No. 18 team went nine races before picking up its next top 10 at Richmond. He didn’t score another top five until the 32nd race of the season at the Charlotte Roval. The struggles came amid contract negotiations with JGR. Not having a sponsor secured, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement.
“It’s got to turn around and get easier at some point,” Busch said. “I don’t know if that’s tomorrow or when that is. We still have the banquet to get through and some other things with the family and all that. This makes it all that much more tougher.”
Mentally, the 2022 season was draining. But it predates this year, as Busch wasn’t his typical self in 2020 or 2021. Even the second half of his 2019 championship-winning season was lackluster, picking up one win in the final five months of the season.
He believes it comes down to one factor.
“Ever since the breakup with Adam [Stevens, now Christopher Bell’s crew chief], it’s not been the same,” Busch noted. “We were Jimmie and Chad; we had that capability and tried to form that again with a new group and were never the same.
“We were successful, we won some races. We had a legitimate shot to win a hell of a lot more races this year than what we got. But with this new car, you’ve got to be on top of it all the time.”
Instead, Busch concludes the year with 17 top-10 finishes, the fewest amount he’s had in a full season since 2014 (he had 16 in 2015, but competed in just 25 races due to a broken leg). His eight top-five efforts are the fewest he’s had in a single season.
To decompress with the frustration, Busch joked by saying he would, “Take some 3Chi since the season is over.” 3Chi is a RCR sponsor.
Busch will keep the fire suit that he wore at Phoenix, as he’s collected all attire that he’s allowed to dating back to when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports. With no attachments to hats, he might sign them and use them as fan giveaways.
He admits to having already spent time at RCR’s campus to get ahead of the transition.
Austin Dillon said on Saturday that he’s begun building a friendship with Busch and it will continue over the offseason. Dillon said Busch even asked about possibly getting his hunting license to fit in with his new team.
It wouldn’t be his first time hunting.
“I had one once upon a time; I’ve been before,” Busch said with a laugh. “Don’t let things completely shock you. Jason Ratcliff and I, when we were really close and racing for a (Xfinity Series) championship in ’09, we went together. I’ve done it before and I’d enjoy doing it again.”
For now, though, he’ll reflect on 15 years of success at JGR.