KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kurt Busch is used to driving for auto-racing icons.
During his NASCAR Cup Series career, which includes a championship in 2004, Busch has driven for Roush-Fenway Racing, Team Penske, Furniture Row Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and now Chip Ganassi Racing.
But next year presents a new challenge for Busch, who will become the second driver for the burgeoning 23XI Racing team co-owned by fellow Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin and NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
Racing against his boss next season won’t be a new experience.
“I’ve been through this before,” Busch said. “I’ve raced for Tony Stewart when he was driving. I’ve raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the same car as my little brother. These are all things I’ve been through and I’m ready for.”
But driving a car owned by a global icon like Jordan — who is arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, a six-time NBA champion and 10-time NBA scoring champion — will be a new experience.
“It’s an awesome amount of pressure to race for a living Smithsonian,” Busch said. “He’s a legend, he’s the GOAT and arguably the GOAT of all of sports. I’ve just met him once. It was a great discussion that we had, kind of like an interview, and a, ‘Yes, we will win together.’ So, it comes with pressure, but I love that.”
Hamlin, a long-time supporter of the Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets, and Jordan, who is principal owner of 23XI Racing, have cultivated a friendship around mutual interests for more than a decade.
But it’s still surreal for Hamlin to be part of the venture with Jordan, who is the first Black owner with the majority stake of a NASCAR team since Wendell Scott a half-century ago.
“It’s very cool,” Hamlin said. “I never would have imagined in a million years, to be honest. Not in a million years. I was just a fan of his, just like anybody else was who watched him play. When I had the opportunity to meet him, engage with him and have some conversations and realized his passion for racing, we just clicked and our friendship clicked.”
The 23XI Racing team encountered a hiccup earlier this month with news that a deal to buy one of Front Row Motorsports’ two Cup Series charters fell apart. That leaves the team, which includes Bubba Wallace and the No. 23 team, with only one charter for two planned full-time teams next season.
“Everyone has different things that they’re trying to accomplish and different goals,” Hamlin said. “Things didn’t quite work out, but we’ll continue to try to find something.”
Denny Hamlin is disappointed the deal with Front Row to obtain a charter for 23XI Racing has fallen through. He describes next steps and the team approach. He says the team will race two cars next year no matter whether it has one charter or two: pic.twitter.com/I2DHBApIUk— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) October 17, 2021
Hamlin reiterated that 23XI still plans to race two Cup Series team next year, which may mean buying a different charter or relying on qualifying — if NASCAR reinstates qualifying, which has been largely nonexistent the last two season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for the 2022 season.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us — building a team up, getting the right crew members in place and building from the foundation that Denny and Michael Jordan and Bubba Wallace have put in place.” Busch said. “Toyota has asked me as a veteran to come in and lead the program.”
Busch has been eliminated from the Cup Series Playoffs, but Hamlin hopes to recapture some Kansas Speedway magic Sunday during the Hollywood Casino 400.
Hamlin has won three times at the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, Kansas, including the fall race two years ago. He also won the 2012 and 2019 spring races at Kansas.
Currently, Hamlin sits third in the playoff standings, but he’s only nine points ahead of reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who sits in fifth place.
The top four drivers advance to the Championship Four on Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Hamlin could guarantee himself a shot at winning his first Cup Series title with a win at Kansas.
“I really like that racetrack,” Hamlin said. “It’s smooth, it’s wide, you can really work the lanes when you need to. It’s a fun racetrack that I do enjoy racing at and one that I’ve certainly got circled at that we could win and possibly punch our ticket.”
The Cup Series race starts at 2 p.m. on Sunday and will air on NBC Sports.
There are two other races on tap Saturday at Kansas, an Xfinity Series race at 2 p.m. on KSHB 41 and the ARCA Menards Championship Series at 6 p.m.