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Less than four months before the season ends, a two-time Cup champion — and arguably one of the greatest talents of his generation — remains unsigned for next year.
It seems unfathomable that Kyle Busch doesn’t have a contract extension. The reality, though, is that a series of events have led to this situation.
Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson summed it up to NBC Sports this week, saying: “We’re in a bad place right now.”
While Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing seek to keep Busch — who has been with the team since 2008 — Wilson admits that contingency plans are being contemplated.
But how did it get to this?
Joe Gibbs Racing typically completes contract extensions with its drivers either before or early into the final year of their deal. The team announced that it had signed Busch and Mars, Inc. to contract extensions on Feb. 28, 2019 — 11 days after the Daytona 500. Those extensions go through this season.
The team did the same thing with Denny Hamlin and FedEx, announcing their most recent contract extensions on Feb. 1, 2021. The most recent contract extension for Martin Truex Jr. was announced Feb. 10, 2021. Both of those deals came before the Daytona 500.
JGR hoped for similar timing this year before Mars, Inc. informed the team last summer that it would not return after this year. The announcement was made last December.
As spring turned to summer and JGR had not announced an extension for Busch, questions were raised.
After Busch won the dirt race at Bristol in April, Coy Gibbs, vice chairman and chief operating officer of JGR, was asked about the sponsor search for the No. 18 team.
“We’ve got a couple people we’re talking to, so we’re excited about that, excited about the leads,” Coy Gibbs said.
Wilson told NBC Sports that a potential sponsor for Busch’s car fell through earlier this year. He said that Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing are working on various plans.
“Joe and I talk every night,” Wilson said of car owner Joe Gibbs. “This is the most important consideration that we are struggling with and working on. Our resolve has not changed one bit. We are not going to quit. … Sometimes these deals come together very late.”
Asked how he thought this would end, Wilson told NBC Sports: “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.”
Sources tell NBC Sports that the potential sponsor that fell through was Oracle, a technology corporation based in Austin, Texas.
In February, Formula 1 team Red Bull Racing announced that Oracle would be its new title sponsor. Sports Pro Media reported that the five-year deal was worth around $300 million.
But a recent report from The Information, which details the technology industry, stated that Oracle has discussed a $1 billion cost-cutting initiative that could lead to thousands of layoffs as early as August. That’s after a June earnings call in which Oracle announced revenues were up 5% year-over-year for fiscal 2022 fourth quarter.
While shares of Oracle stock rose 2.69% Thursday to $74.54, the company closed $31.80 below its 52-week high of $106.34. That’s a 29.9% decrease from the company’s 52-week high.
Moving on from Oracle, Joe Gibbs Racing’s quest remains — find a sponsor or sponsors to be on the No. 18 car for nearly the entire season, which Mars did through its brands.
Without significant sponsorship, a team cannot pay what a two-time Cup champion is worth.
Joe Gibbs said last week that “I’m surprised at this point that we haven’t been able to get that (deal) finished.”
Busch told reporters last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that he’s talked to other teams.
The only high-profile car known to be open for next season is the No. 10 car at Stewart-Haas Racing. Aric Almirola announced in January that he would retire from full-time Cup competition, but he said last weekend that “decision makers” have asked him about returning, whether that is part-time or full-time. If so, that would take away that option for Busch.
Since there are limited openings for next season, one alternative for Joe Gibbs Racing and Busch could be to sign a one-year deal with a reduced salary. Such a deal could provide more time for JGR to find sponsorship for 2024 with the intent of a much larger salary for Busch.
While that might not be the most appealing prospect for Busch, it would keep him with one of the sport’s top organizations for a year and could provide him with more potential suitors next season.
Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Trackhouse Racing are among winning teams that could have an opening after the 2023 season based on current contracts.
Even if many of those teams pass on Busch, all it would take is one other team to be interested to drive up the salary for Busch.
“We’ve been pretty consistent since the end of last season, which is we want Kyle to be in the 18 car and that’s our plan,” Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said in early July. “We’re still working on sponsorship.
“As much interest as there is in our sport, these take a long time. Admittedly, this one’s taken a little longer than we thought. It’s not for lack of interest. It’s just trying to get everything put together. (An extension for Busch and new sponsor deal) will probably happen in parallel.
“We’re hoping to get something decided here in the very near future.”
If not, then what?
That is a reality Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing don’t want to envision.
“Any scenario that doesn’t have Kyle Busch retiring from Joe Gibbs racing and Toyota would be a monstrous disappointment,” Wilson said in May.
2. Climbing the charts
Putting a street race in Chicago next season continues a trend by NASCAR in the past four years to place events in some of the country’s largest TV markets.
Since 2018, NASCAR has added Cup races in:
Los Angeles, the No. 2 TV market in the country (Clash at the Coliseum in 2022)
Chicago, the No. 3 TV market (2023 street course race)
St. Louis, the No. 23 TV market (World Wide Technology Raceway in 2022)
Nashville, the No. 29 TV market (Nashville Superspeedway in 2021)
Austin, the No. 38 TV market (Circuit of the Americas in 2021)
Next year, the Cup Series will have races either in or within an hour’s drive of Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth (No. 5 TV market), San Francisco (No. 6 TV market) and Atlanta (No. 7 TV market).
NASCAR touted that more than two-thirds of the fans attending the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum had not purchased a ticket for a NASCAR race previously. The event attracted an crowed estimated at more than 50,000 and Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy, called it an “incredible day.”
In announcing the first Cup street course race in NASCAR’s history, Kennedy said before a Chicago audience it was a “monumental day.”
One wonders what word he uses to describe NASCAR’s next move. While it might be a year or so away, NASCAR isn’t done with changes to the schedule.
“We want to continue to explore new markets,” Kennedy said.
“We’ve talked a lot about the Pacific Northwest. We’ve talked a lot about the Northeast area. That’s an important market for us.
“Even internationally as well. I don’t know that there will be a day, at least in the short term, that we’ll go necessarily overseas, but there might be an opportunity for us, sometime in the future, to go north of the border up to Canada, or to go to Mexico.
“Not sure what that looks like. That’s probably a little bit of a longer-term vision for us, but certainly putting all cards on the table.”
Even with those races in big markets, Trackhouse Racing team owner Justin Marks told NBC Sports that NASCAR’s moves aren’t bypassing some of the sport’s traditional sites.
“I think they are walking that line between being … very creative in how they develop the sport for the future, while also making sure they are committed to the events that, for decades, have gotten us here,” he said.
NASCAR’s schedule this season includes two races in Darlington, Bristol and Martinsville — traditional venues in small markets. Each track hosts a playoff race. The playoffs begin in Darlington with the Southern 500, the cutoff race in the first round is at Bristol and Martinsville hosts the final race before the championship event in Phoenix.
3. Ahead of his time
Four years ago, Justin Marks called for NASCAR to run a street course event, saying “I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people.
“In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series, and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.”
The sentiment remains true about street course events. They’re as much a party as a racing event.
That concept has kept the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach a relevant part of the California city for 47 years.
Jim Michaelian, president and CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, told NBC Sports that about 65% of the people attending the race weekend “are not what you would call traditional racing fans.
“When you think about how you’re going to organize an event, you have to keep in mind that these aren’t individuals who are committed to driving, 30, 40, 50, 100 miles and spending a day or two or three camping or doing whatever they want to do to watch racing.
“These people are coming into a downtown setting, which hopefully, has all the allurements and attractions that the downtown race venue has, and are coming to enjoy racing, yeah to a certain degree.
“The fact is our event is a three-day festival. It has a variety of different activities, whether it’s concerts, whether it’s a large expo, whether it’s a kid’s zone, whether it’s a car show, hospitality options, all of those things need to be part and parceled in the composition of the event so that there is something amongst that whole milieu that people say, ‘You know what? I’m attracted to that,’ and that causes them to come.”
Marks not only has a role as owner of Trackhouse Racing but in the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix through the streets of Nashville. The Aug. 7 event will mark the second running.
“The whole conversation about how to have a successful event has got nothing to do with the race, really,” Marks told NBC Sports. “It’s just got to do with all the peripheral experience.”
As part of the announcement that NASCAR will race on the streets of Chicago next year is that there would be various concerts and entertainment options for those attending.
“We’ve really placed an emphasis particularly on making sure that we expose young people to this opportunity,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said after Tuesday’s announcement. “We’ve done it with everything. We’re doing it, for example with Lollapalooza, where they get a behind-the-scenes opportunity. So we just see the opportunities to really build great deep synergies with the residents in Chicago.”
4. Waiting on a phone call
Black Rifle Coffee Company has sponsored Dillon’s car in six Cup races this season, including the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race. The company also has been on Gragson’s JR Motorsports Xfinity car all season.
Also, Dave Elenz, crew chief for Erik Jones on the No. 43 Petty GMS car, was the crew chief for Gragson the previous three seasons. He could provide Gragson a familiar face in the building.
Whether it is Gragson or any other JR Motorsports driver, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he looks forward to hearing from his drivers when they have a Cup opportunity.
“I can’t wait for the phone to ring for any of our four guys to get a call,” Earnhardt said. “I want to know about it as soon as it happens. I can’t wait to help them to make a decision of whether that is a smart move or not.
“I was in the foyer of my house when Aric Almirola called me (in 2011). He said, ‘I got some tough news.’ He said ‘Richard Petty has called me to see …’
“You’ve got to go.’ I didn’t even let him finish his sentence. That’s it. That’s what we do this for. ‘This is your chance.’ I was so happy. That’s like a win. That’s like a trophy. … It’s kind of getting pulled up from the minors. It could happen any minute. In the middle of the year.
“I’m excited anytime that happens and the potential for Noah to have that opportunity. I’m waiting. I’m waiting to hear that phone ring any second for him and for any of our guys.”
5. Searching for first win of the year
Here’s a look at playoff-eligible drivers searching for their first win this season who have won at the remaining tracks in the regular season.
Indianapolis road course — None
Michigan — Ryan Blaney (2021), Kevin Harvick (twice in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2010)
Richmond — Martin Truex Jr. (2021, twice in 2019), Brad Keselowski (2020, 2014), Kevin Harvick (2013, 2011, 2006)
Watkins Glen — Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Kevin Harvick (2006)
Daytona — Ryan Blaney (2021), Michael McDowell (2020), Justin Haley (2019), Erik Jones (2018), Austin Dillon (2018), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017), Brad Keselowski (2016), Aric Almirola (2014), Kevin Harvick (2010, 2007)