Kurt Busch might be hanging up his helmet as a NASCAR Cup Series driver as soon as the end of the 2021 season. Or, he might be ready to sign another deal to keep going as NASCAR's Next Generation car makes its debut in 2022. It's a toss-up, and he's not ready to commit either way — although he did agree to serve as a test driver of the Next Gen car last fall during a two-day test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"I'll give it 50-50. I've been at this game a long time," Busch, 42, told CBS Sports in October. "I've been out there 21 years, and my wife is a great supporter of mine and she loves racing, but it's been a bunch of years out on the road and out on the circuit. We'll see what 2022 brings us when we get there."
Regardless, Busch starts this season as the longest-tenured driver in the Cup Series. He's made 720 starts — good for 14th all-time — and now owns 32 Cup wins. That's enough to tie Dale Jarrett on the all-time list for 26th. Another win in 2021 would move Busch into a tie with Fireball Roberts.
Looking back to last season, it's clear that a fortunately timed yellow flag and a strong restart at his hometown track proved a rejuvenating elixir for Busch. The combination gave the 42-year-old the race lead and eventually the race win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's fall event. It broke a 21-race winless streak for Busch at his home track and launched him into the third round of the Cup playoffs. Busch ended up scoring his most total top-5 finishes since 2016 and continued a streak of seven consecutive seasons with a win.
After the breakthrough Las Vegas win, Busch ultimately missed the Championship 4 but left the playoffs feeling buoyant. "We were a deserving top-eight team, and we put up a good fight," Busch said after his postseason elimination at Martinsville Speedway.
That night, Busch talked about how the Ganassi organization as a whole had "turned a corner." In particular, he noted the team's reaction to a seventh-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway days before the Martinsville race. "When I first started [at CGR] two years ago, we had a top-10 run and everybody was celebrating," Busch said. "[After Texas] we were kind of just kicking the ground as we left the racetrack. We were satisfied, but it made us even hungrier. So I'm just proud of the progression that we've had over two years."
What lies ahead for Busch might just hang on the first half of this 2021 campaign. If Busch gets out of the gate with some strong finishes, the idea of extending his current contract with Ganassi gets much easier from all perspectives — driver, sponsorship, and team owner. And if he doesn't? Busch's future might look as cloudy as it did when he signed single-year, offseason contracts after the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Last fall, Busch laid out what he saw as the key offseason priorities for his Matt McCall-led Ganassi team. Leading the list was how the team would make sure Busch's new teammate Ross Chastain could provide effective feedback that benefits both cars.
"We need Chastain to get up to speed quick. We need him for information sharing and identical setups, for preparation to continue," Busch said. "Hendrick Engines knows they've got work to do. Chevrolet, the Camaro, we've got to do as much as we can in the wind tunnel. And we have to perfect all these little things that kept us out of Victory Lane this year. A lot of it is on pit road. So we've got to do better there as well."
It's a punch list full of important to-do's with plenty of heavy lifting for Kurt Busch. But retirement? That still seems miles away.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 28/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)