It didn't seem much could still go wrong this year for Kyle Busch until his engine blew with 22 laps remaining in NASCAR's opening playoff race.
Busch had dominated at Darlington Raceway and led a race-high 155 laps for what should have been a much needed victory. He's had a crummy season and the 10-race playoff stretch is probably the final days of his career with Joe Gibbs Racing.
The only active driver with multiple titles has not been able to come to terms on a new contract at Gibbs, where he's driven since 2008 and won two Cup titles while also building Toyota's most successful truck team. M&M Mars is leaving NASCAR at the end of the year and JGR has been unable to find a replacement sponsor for Busch, who has offered to drive below his market value to get a deal completed.
And so this year had already been pretty lousy before his engine blew Sunday night while leading under caution. Instead of a victory that would have automatically advanced him into the second round, Busch finished 30th and remained 11th in the playoff standings.
Busch has been on a bit of a publicity tour in what appears to be an attempt to show he can be personable, so he handled the Darlington disappointment with dignity in his live television interview. He praised his team for “all the stuff the guys have done and gone through, just all the news and everything that’s going on all year, they’ve dug in and never given up."
Asked how he was feeling, he offered a faint smile: “I don’t know. The sun will come up tomorrow.”
The next race comes Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where Busch finished third in the spring on a dominant day for Toyota. His older brother, Kurt, won the race and JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. finished fourth through sixth as Toyotas took five of the top-six spots. Bubba Wallace was 10th in the only other Toyota.
“Looking forward to getting back in our M&M’S Camry and have a solid run like we did there in the spring and be able to improve on what we did there just a little bit and have a shot to win,” Busch said of his Kansas return.
Alas, he still doesn't have a 2023 deal to announce and with the clock ticking, Hall of Famer and NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr. started to speculate on social media. Busch is often mentioned as a candidate to drive for Kaulig Racing, 23XI Racing where his brother races, and Richard Childress Racing.
Earnhardt tweeted Thursday night the emoji's to say “Shrub to the 8” indicating Busch would replace Tyler Reddick at RCR. Reddick has already said he's leaving RCR at the end of 2023; Childress has been adamant that Reddick will fulfill the final year of his contract.
But Earnhardt might not have any actual inside information. He also tweeted “I thought it was Kaulig. But not so sure anymore.”
Then he followed with a less sensical use of emojis that could loosely be interpreted as Busch to 23XI in the No. 32. That's assuming that's what Earnhardt meant by tweeting 32 basketballs; 23XI is co-owned by Michael Jordan.
That's when Busch finally entered the conversation, replying to Earnhardt “The High Rock must b flowing tonite” in reference to Earnhardt's vodka brand.
Busch's situation is complicated because of Kyle Busch Motorsports, the flagship Truck Series team at Toyota. Busch also drives NASCAR's maximum permitted five races in his own truck. It gets messy leaving a Toyota Cup team but staying on as a Truck Series team owner for Toyota, which means all of KBM likely has to be reconfigured to a new manufacturer if Busch leaves JGR for a Chevrolet team.
Either way, it seems Busch's long tenure has come to an uncomfortable end at JGR, where he won both of his Cup titles and all but four of his 60 career Cup wins. He's the winningest driver in Xfinity Series and Truck Series history, and NASCAR has had to make rules because of Busch to limit Cup driver participation in lower series.
It seems unfathomable that Busch, who turned 37 in May and could have another 10 years in his career, is this deep into the season and still unsure of his future plans. He's admitted his contract status has been stressful in what's so far been a one-win season with career lows in most categories except laps led.
Kansas is his next chance to keep his time with JGR rolling as smooth as possible. What comes after that is a waiting game.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports