Kyle Busch heads free agency still, a deep look at the free agency landscape this year and what’s transpired to lead us to where we are today

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Several drivers have solidified their 2023 NASCAR Cup Series plans. Most of these announcements have come in the last month or so. It really all started 2 months ago at the Nashville Superspeedway when both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. announced new deals to stay with their respective teams.

The last few weeks have seen Team Penske shore up their lineup with Ryan Blaney signing a few weeks back and Joey Logano last week. Each have reached long term extensions to remain in place. Also during the Verizon 200 race weekend, Petty GMS Racing announced that Erik Jones will stay put in a multi-year deal too. Then a few weeks ago, Noah Gragson was announced as the driver of the 2nd car with the team.

On Friday at Daytona, Trackhouse Racing announced Daniel Suarez will stay in place for 2023. Also on that day, Aric Almirola announced that he will not retire after all and has signed a multi-year deal to remain in his No. 10 Ford with Stewart-Haas Racing.

The biggest announcement so far and one that’s having lasting impacts if the one that Tyler Reddick and Toyota announced on July 12 that Reddick would be joining 23XI Racing in 2024. See, Reddick and RCR held options for 2023 and they decided to stick together another year.

When Denny Hamlin found out that Reddick wasn’t tied to anyone in 2024, he went to Toyota to see if he was allowed to talk to him. With Toyota’s blessing, Hamlin went to his partners at 23XI and wanted to figure out a way to snag Reddick for the future.

“I watched him. I raced against him. I wanted him and I got him,” Hamlin said via the Toyota call last month. “It made sense to me; you look at his age, his runway that he has, franchise drivers don’t come around that often. And so, if there’s ever one that you feel like you can grab, you go after, you do whatever it takes to make that happen and then you work on the details later.”

The team awarded Bubba Wallace a multi-year contract extension earlier this month. They also have a spot for Kurt Busch in 2023 if he wants it. Busch is a free agent at the end of next season but has been sidelined since late July with concussion like symptoms.

“We’re going to have Kurt as long as Kurt wants to be a race car driver,” Hamlin said last month. “We want to have him, so that’s pretty much the end of that. And then once he’s done driving, he’s going to have a nice, cushy office job at 23XI. He’s going to be part of our future well beyond his driving days, so we constantly are in dialogue with him on what his plans are. But ultimately, you never know. Things could change and Kurt could want to race until he’s 48 years old. And, if he does, then we’re going to build a car for him.”

If Busch wants to return, the seat of the No. 45 Toyota is his. That’s why 23XI Racing isn’t necessarily too keen on bringing Reddick over early. Why would they? They made this announcement 18 months ahead of time to give them the space to get this planned right. There is no rush.

They didn’t have that luxury with signing of Wallace in late 2020 and Busch last year. By doing this for Reddick, it gives them time to see if they’ll need a third charter for 2024 or not. They’re not going to stress about putting a 3rd team together and having 5 months to do so.

So how does this affect Kyle Busch then?

Well there was obvious tension on how Reddick handled this announcement. He feels like he did it respectfully while Richard Childress doesn’t. While Childress wasn’t too shocked to see Reddick go as he mentioned that Reddick was offered the moon and that RCR didn’t have the resources to match, he was taken back that Reddick never said a word to Childress until the morning of that he not only was leaving but an announcement was coming in a few hours.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to Childress either. Kevin Harvick, their best driver since Dale Earnhardt left after the 2013 season. It was a deal announced in 2012.

The difference?

Harvick made Childress aware.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – JULY 31: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 3CHI Chevrolet, celebrates with his son, Beau after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 31, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“Well, Kevin and I talked through his whole deal and we made a joint announcement. He won four races that year, and we almost won the championship,” Childress said. “This one didn’t happen like that.”

Childress questioned where Reddick’s respect was. He felt like Reddick should have come to him sooner so they could have at least put out a mutual release.

Instead, they were blindsided with no shot to have their own spin on it.

“Well, after they made their announcement, I met — I thought about it a lot that night, gave it a lot of thought, and it’s more than just about one person,” Childress said. “It’s about a team. Stayed up most of the night thinking about what I should do, how I wanted to handle it.

“I went in the next day and told the whole team it wasn’t a perfect circumstance the way it went down, but we’re going to give it everything we’ve got this year, and we’ll see where we go next year.”

Then Reddick won Indy.

Up until that win quite honestly, some were wondering if Reddick would just get let go early. RCR was so mad, they could just let him out of his contract a year early and pursue someone else. I mean a search was on for 2024, why not sooner?

It was toxic. Reddick admitted as much after his Indy win. He didn’t talk to his boss much until that victory. But winning heals he says and Childress confirmed afterwards that Reddick isn’t going anywhere now in 2023.

“Yeah, Tyler will be in the car at RCR next year,” Childress said.

So if you take what they’re each saying for face value, then there’s no place for Reddick at 23XI Racing in 2023 and RCR isn’t letting him go.

So, where does this all sit moving forward? Well, rumors are surfacing again that Childress still isn’t keen on Reddick for 2023. I mean they even put Austin Hill in a 3rd Cup car at Michigan earlier this month. His other grandson, Ty Dillon, announced that he’s leaving Petty GMS Racing at season end. Would they really let Reddick go after all a year early?

If they do, why not Kyle Busch? He’s a free agent. Back in December of last year, Mars announced that they’d be leaving JGR at the end of the 2022 season. Still, they figured this could be a no brainer to find a new sponsor for the No. 18 Toyota for 2023 and beyond. I mean it’s Kyle Busch for crying out loud.

But as the months went on and nothing was materializing, concern grew. Busch was now looking like he was going to have to take a pay cut if he wanted to stay.

“I’ve already admitted that I’m willing to take concessions,” Busch said of his contract negotiations at Indy. “I feel like the market is different than what it was years ago and willing to raise for under my market value. So whenever that comes to be it’s obviously a negotiation and then figuring out where I go and what the long term play is what the short term play is, and, you know, hopefully not being able to go through this again.”

Busch says this sport has evolved to where you need to have sponsors to continue on.

“It’s not it’s it’s not as simple as being a basketball player and being a Michael Jordan or LeBron James or something like that,” he says. “And being a really good player and the team losing a sponsor and then saying, Okay, Michael, LeBron, you guys, we got to let you go. We can’t afford you know what I mean? So again, you have to have some sponsorship on the car and unfortunately, right now, there’s just not, there’s not that unicorn, there’s not that big $20 million number out there. So we’re, I’d like to be able to piece it together but haven’t heard much on that yet.

“Yeah, I mean, I hate to make comparisons but somebody told me this a week or so ago. It’d be like Dale Earnhardt in 1998, three or four years after winning his last championship being on the free market agency and not having a ride. You know what I mean? Like that just sounds crazy. So I don’t know what to do.”

Busch also maintained that he has always wanted to stay at JGR but without a contract, it has forced him to talk to others.

“I mean, anything’s on the table,” he says. “But that unicorn hasn’t fallen out of the sky or 20 million bucks or whatever it is, and I don’t think it needs to be that number. Because obviously there’s a there’s a number in that that then pays a driver and I’ve already said that I’m willing to take concessions and race for under my market value and go forward and being able to stay in the seat that I’ve made home for the last 15 years.”

The fact that JGR still hasn’t signed Busch even with him making concessions if alarming which now has the main focus being elsewhere.

The top two destinations being mentioned are RCR and Kaulig Racing. Both have mentioned that they did talk to Busch.

“Kyle (Busch) is a great race driver. He and I have talked,” Childress admitted after Austin Dillon’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 win. “We put all our differences behind us a while back, and he is a great race driver. He will land him a good ride somewhere for sure.”

When asked if it could be with RCR?

“You said that, I didn’t,” he said smiling.

So if Reddick is bought out, the 8 car makes the most sense. They can find sponsorship and Busch is already willing to take less. Plus, how much of a role does Chevrolet play in this. They’d love to have him back and would as a benefit get his Truck Series team too.

However, I also don’t think Busch is totally out the door either because David Wilson of Toyota said on Saturday at Daytona that their aim is still retaining Busch.

He said that the manufacturers role only goes so far and that the team aspect has to be involved too. The thing is, he mentioned that he doesn’t want to have to compete against an angry Kyle Busch next year and that they’re still trying to work out the details.

One detail to retain him on the Toyota side is if his brother does step away. Does Busch slide over there? That could take time though to figure out.

The new word is Ty Gibbs is the top replacement for Kyle Busch in the 18 which could really force Busch to go to RCR or Kaulig because there’s not much else left.

He’s running out of options to stay in a competitive ride now unless someone gets creative.

For Ford, Penske is locked in at 3 cars and not expanding to 4 cars. SHR now has 3 of their 4 drivers solidified but it sounds like Cole Custer will return too. There’s no other top Ford ride open.

Toyota has the 18 ride open but that’s the one Busch is in now.

Chevrolet is full with Hendrick Motorsports and Trackhouse has both drivers signed now for 2023. Could he do a one-year deal and test a market that has free agents next year like Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez?

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