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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Kyle Busch open to pay cut, options outside NASCAR as he looks for 2023 seat

INDIANAPOLIS — Kyle Busch started his Saturday by joining past winners at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a class photo on the Yard of Bricks.

He was seated next to Arie Luyendyk and in front of Marcus Ericsson, Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves — a combined eight Indianapolis 500 titles flanking NASCAR’s only active driver with multiple Cup championships.

And yet Busch still doesn’t have a contract for next season. His longtime sponsor is pulling out of NASCAR at the end of the season, and if Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t find a deep-pocketed replacement for M&M’s and Mars Inc., Busch will have to find a job elsewhere.

It’s an unfathomable predicament for Busch, the 2015 and 2019 NASCAR champion and winner of 60 career Cup races, with all but four won since joining JGR in 2008. He wants to stay in the No. 18 Toyota, but the clock is ticking.

“It’d be like Dale Earnhardt in 1998, three or four years after winning his last championship, being on the free agency market and not having a ride. That just sounds crazy,” Busch said. “I don’t know what to do, how to fix that.”

Despite his credentials, Busch knows he is going to have to take a pay cut. The motorsports business model relies on corporate funding, and the market is radically different than it was when he signed his first deal with Gibbs in 2007 and even when he signed his last extension in 2019.

“You talk about what you want, and I think you are insinuating that I’m asking for the sky on salary or something like that, and I’ve already admitted I’m willing to take concessions,” Busch said. “I feel like the market is different than what it was years ago, and I’m willing to race for under my market value.

“You gotta have sponsorship in this sport to go forward. It’s not as simple as being a basketball player and being Michael Jordan or LeBron James and being a really good player and then the team losing a sponsor and then saying, ‘OK, Michael, LeBron, we gotta let you go. We can’t afford you.'”

Busch acknowledged that the stress has made for “a lot of sleepless nights” as NASCAR heads into Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR will race the road course for the second consecutive year; Busch finished 20th last year but won back-to-back Brickyard 400s on the oval in 2015 and 2016.

He has one victory this season and is playoff eligible. But his current team was rocked when Denny Hamlin and Busch were stripped of their 1-2 finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway because their Toyotas failed inspection — an escalation because the series won’t tolerate any nonsense with its new Next Gen car.

“It’s excessive for what it was, but I get the process for the car and making sure the example is out there,” Busch said of the suspension.

So typically bold and brash, Busch was more muted on that and almost all topics because he is clearly concerned about what’s next in his racing career.

He said he is talking to teams all across the NASCAR garage and can’t even keep all the conversations straight. He knows he has the skills to step away from full-time NASCAR racing and craft a schedule of bucket-list races across multiples series, but it’s probably a last-ditch option.

Busch wants to keep his seat at Gibbs, end of story.

“My first goal is to be at Joe Gibbs Racing and be with Toyota and have nothing change,” Busch said. “If the musical chairs music stops and I’m still standing and I don’t have a seat, I’m screwed. So I have to continue to talk and evaluate each place and each situation and find something.”

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