NASCAR kicked off its 2023 track activity this week with a stop at the Circuit of the Americas for Goodyear tire testing, where two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch made his debut in a new car with a new team.
In arguably the sport’s greatest story for the New Year, the 37-year-old Las Vegas native switched to the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing after driving the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing for 15 years. Busch spent the last two days at the track in Austin.
“It’s like being at a new school, meeting new classmates,” Busch said of the transition. “We see how my communication skills are and then my new team takes the car and makes it faster.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a right time for anything. These are the cards that have been dealt and we play them. RCR is such a big name. They match the most successful driver in NASCAR from all three Series – 220-something wins – with the team with the longest tenure in NASCAR. It’s a fresh start late in the game for me.”
NASCAR heads to the February 5th Clash at the Coliseum, a no points exhibition in Los Angeles ahead of the February 19th headlining Daytona 500. The EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at COTA, back for a third year, is March 26, the sixth race on the calendar.
“We’re excited to see NASCAR throwing so much into Austin weekend,” said Bryan Hammond, executive director of NASCAR at COTA. “They’re bringing the entire show to Austin, with truck racing, the Xfinity series and the Cup Stars. We have Darius Rucker for a pre-race concert. The early signs are encouraging (for a large crowd). It’s great that they chose us for the first test of the new year because it promotes our race.”
Busch was here with defending Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric and Tyler Reddick, who after a breakout season made the switch to the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing with RCR in 2022, notching his first three cup wins and earning a playoff spot.
“It’s always a great time here at COTA,” said Reddick, the 27-year-old California native. “It’s one of the most fun tracks, very challenging. The change (in the teams) means a lot of new people, new places, different ways of preparation and training. I’m impressed with everything Toyota brings to the table. This team is leaning on me to improve their road course program.”
Over two days, drivers got a good taste of Austin. Among other things, Reddick and Cindric went to the Austin specialty store Maufrais for custom-made cowboy hats. Busch said returning to Austin for a third year made sense.
“It’s a big thing venturing into new markets, and especially here in Austin, with the city and a world-class road course,” Busch said. “We have just announced our new sponsor Netspend and this is their home. It is important to pick up partners from different regions of the country.
“The fans here were amazing. Last year’s show was one of the best of the year. A lot was made of that last round and everything that happened,” with Ross Chastain’s bumpy win.
Cindric is back in the #2 Ford for Team Penske after his stunning Daytona triumph. He was named Rookie of the Year and qualified for the playoffs. He said the venue and location made the Austin race special.
“This is the only chance we get on a Formula 1 track,” said the 24-year-old from Columbus, Ohio. “This is a European style track compared to other road courses we have on the States side. It has a lot of elements and you can easily get distracted. The great thing about coming here is that COTA is so close to downtown Austin. Some of the tracks that we race at are being built further away from the cities. I love the proximity to downtown.”
Busch, an outspoken, polarizing figure among fans, said his move to RCR is unlikely to change his aggressive on-track behavior or his “rowdy” nickname.
“It’s about who makes you angry,” he said. “My actions are a product of circumstances and what is happening. All sports need some entertainment, some excitement, and I’ve been that guy for a while. This hat is black for a reason. We will continue.”