Q&A with NASCAR’s Kyle Busch: On longevity, copying Tom Brady, and building a legacy

NASCAR star Kyle Busch spoke to the Observer about his trajectory this season, the legacy he wants to build, and how to address some of the sport’s larger issues.
NASCAR star Kyle Busch spoke to the Observer about his trajectory this season, the legacy he wants to build, and how to address some of the sport’s larger issues. AP

Kyle Busch is many things.

One of the more dominant NASCAR drivers of this era, certainly. Busch is currently leading the Cup Series points standings, and he’s the only driver in the circuit to already have accrued three wins this season.

But Busch is more than just a talented racer. At times nicknamed “Rowdy” when he was younger, he’s grown personally alongside his professional strides. He’s a businessman with his own company and charitable foundation, and increasingly he’s also becoming an ambassador for NASCAR — both its triumphs and its ongoing issues.

Which makes Busch the perfect person to gauge the state of the sport. The Observer spoke to Busch via phone on Wednesday about his current trajectory, how much longer he sees himself racing, and more.

Busch’s responses have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q. Your brother Kurt said after the Bristol race (which Kyle won last week) that if he had caught you from second place, he’d totally have wrecked you for the win. You basically said, “Good to know, and now I’ll do the same.” How do you handle that dynamic, and do you remember a time growing up where that ever came into play?

A. I don’t know. He might’ve just been saying all that to look for attention and get attention off the success I’ve been having. Whatever. He’s been having good success this year as well, and I know how much he would like to win with his new team, but we’re eight races into the season and I hope that’s not his best chance to go after a victory.

Again, I just think he’s looking for attention because any time you bring up wrecking Kyle Busch, anybody’s going to agree with you that needs to happen. The next time in that situation, I’m going to show him that you can race door-to-door, race clean, and I can pass him and beat him fair and square.

Kyle Busch (18) drives next to his brother Kurt Busch (1) on a restart during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, April 7, 2019, in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne) Wade Payne AP

Q. What were your expectations coming into this year and how do they compare with what’s actually happened?

A. I think it’s definitely interesting. I wasn’t necessarily sure how this new aero package was going to shake out, but it’s been pretty good, you know? Having the success that we’ve had obviously, I feel as though we’re on top of our game. We’re doing the things we need to be doing, but also Team Penske is right there, too. They’re really, really fast each and every week — all three of their cars — so we’ve just got to continue being able to work on our stuff and find some more speed and hopefully be able to win some more races.

Q. You’ve already got three wins this year. Do you ever think about how many you could potentially rack up in one season? Is it possible that you hit double-digit wins this year (which hasn’t happened since Jimmie Johnson got 10 in 2007)?

A. I haven’t thought about it until I’ve been asked about it. I’d like to think that we can be very successful and chase after 10 wins this year. That would be amazing. People would then say, “Well why not 13? 13 is the record.”

Well sure, but I’m trying to be realistic first. Once we get to 10, let’s talk about 13. I think double digits would be awesome, but more importantly we want to win that final race of the year at Homestead when we’re in championship contention.

Kyle Busch, left, speaks with Jimmie Johnson in the garage area prior to the opening practice session Friday, March 18, 2016, for the NASCAR auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (AP Photo/Will Lester) AP file photo

Q. You and I have talked a few times about what a second championship would mean to you, but I’m curious about something. After you finished second in the Daytona 500 this year, you seemed especially cut up about coming up short of that win again. How do you compare chasing a second championship with chasing your first 500 win?

A. To me, being able to win a Daytona 500 is kind of the final race (I don’t have outside of) every race I’ve been able to win. I’ve won the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the All-Star race — like, I’ve achieved every single race except the Daytona 500. That would mean a ton. It’s obviously our biggest race of the season, it’s our Super Bowl. So it’d be nice to be able to get that win.

Then to get the second championship would just solidify the first. Just kind of back up what I’ve been able to accomplish and my legacy in our sport. And I don’t want to stop at two. I’d like to think we can go three, four, five, whatever, and get to that level.

Q. You mentioned legacy. Last weekend’s win at Bristol tied you for 10th on the all-time Cup Series wins list, and you tied Richard Petty’s 200 wins earlier this season. So how often do you actually think your legacy — both what it is now and what you’d eventually like it to be?

A. I don’t. I don’t think about that at all. Basically I just think about what I’m doing right now and focusing on being the best I can be. To me right now, I feel like I’ve got 10 more years left that I can at least be competitive in this sport and win races in this sport. Probably at that point is when I’ll start thinking about what my legacy might be and things like that. But I think your legacy is gonna be left behind by what you’ve been able to do, what you’ve been able to accomplish, and the way you were able to make it happen.

The first seven, eight years of my career in NASCAR were a bit rough, but the last five, six, seven have been pretty good, pretty smooth. I’ve not seen the inside of a NASCAR hauler (for getting in trouble) much lately, so I don’t know if they have new decorations in there or not, but it’s been nice to not know.

Kyle Busch (18) finished second in the season-opening Daytona 500 this February, making it the last major race he’s yet to win. AP file photo

Q. Ten years? Longevity in NASCAR is obviously different compared to stick-and-ball sports, but when you see stars like Jimmie Johnson struggling as they get older, what makes you confident you’ll still be going strong in a decade?

A. You know, I don’t know. I just would like to think so. You’ve got to have a little Tom Brady factor right now.

Tom did the same thing in his 30s. When he was 33, 35, he started to get really heavy on eating better and a workout regime and getting healthier, and it’s kind of given him a longer career, and I’m doing some of the same stuff now in order to try to preserve time and get myself through to years down the road.

Q. Because you mention Brady and were at the Super Bowl, I’ve got to ask: How much of a general sports fan are you? Like did you watch any of the NCAA basketball tournament or will you watch the Masters at all this weekend?

A. A little bit, but probably not as much as someone might think. For me, I love football. I watch football all the time. I enjoy getting home on Monday nights and watch “Monday Night Football,” and “Sunday Night Football” when we get home early enough on Sunday nights.

I don’t watch much golf. I have lately though because my crew chief, Adam Stevens, is huge into it, so he always has it on in the hauler. I’ve seen a bit more golf lately than I’d particularly choose to (laughs). And then basketball, I enjoy watching when it gets to playoff time, and same for baseball when it gets to playoff time. I guess I’m kind of like the general public, the general fan base where you turn on a Major League Baseball game right now on midday afternoon and there’s nobody there. Well, I’m not there either. Tell me when crunch time happens and I’ll tune in.

Q. Did you see what (fellow driver) Clint Bowyer did after the Bristol race? He called a number of hotels in the surrounding area and found some pretty substantial examples of price gouging. What do you make of that as far as the impact it’s having on NASCAR?

A. Well that’s nothing new. That’s been that way forever. I did read a few of the fans who mentioned back on Clint’s post that they had gone to races in the early 90s and the same thing was happening in the early 90s. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the hotel rooms as much as the overall cost of being able to do things these days, and people are not wanting to spend as much of their income.

I say that because I look at the camping. I remember going to Bristol and the camping was full. Full in the spring race, full in the fall race. And now we were just there, and dude, it was empty. There was nobody camping. So you can’t even blame the hotels when there’s nobody being able to put up camping.

I looked around at some of the campsites, and I don’t remember if they were charging $500 or $1,000 a weekend, or something like that. But $1,000, to put a camper on grass, you’re charging a thousand dollars? And then people have got to go to the grocery store. Think about three days of groceries with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you’re probably going to be around $500 in the grocery range. Then you’ve got to buy tickets to go to the race for a family of four, you’re going to be at another five to eight hundred dollars worth. So by the time you add all this up, it’s $3,000 for a weekend for race fans, and they just don’t have that or don’t want to spend that or don’t see enough value from it these days.

Race tracks have kind of fallen victim to much of this over the years because they don’t put enough other activities in that show fans a good time. Sponsors in the midway have kind of pulled out some too, because sponsorship in the midway is $30,000 for the weekend, so sponsors aren’t going to pay that. Everything is so outrageous that it’s a difficult way of life.

Q. There’s clearly no easy solution to those issues or else someone would have figured it out by now, but do you have any ideas how NASCAR or the campsites or hotels could remedy some of that?

A. I think you need to show more of a good time.

Look, our sport is sponsored by Monster Energy, we’ve got the Monster Energy girls. Why aren’t we sending them out to colleges, to wherever, handing out tickets, handing out passes? We’re going to have parties at the race track, and there’s going to be music, there’s going to be concerts. Get people drinking, you get people to the venue, you get people to the grounds and maybe they’ll buy some tickets or maybe they’ll watch the race. That’s the first step, I guess.

We’ve got to get back to the younger crowd a little bit and show people more of a good time, rather than just sitting there watching a race that they can watch on TV or in the comfort of their own home. Really it’s what people are into these days, and the younger crowd is not quite into watching stock cars go around in circles. Maybe they’ve been there, maybe they’ve already seen it so they’re under the impression of been there, done that.

It’s kind of like social media, right? Having a cellphone in your pocket, you can get anything you want anytime you want it. Right then and there, boom, you have it. I think it’s just a different society.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
Support my work with a digital subscription