To Build a Champion, 23XI Needed Champion Kurt Busch

The 2004 Cup champion was a vital building block for Denny Hamlin and MJ.


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There is a reason Kurt Busch was sporting the 'black cement' Air Jordan colors over the weekend at Kansas Speedway.

All Michael Jordan does is win and the 2004 champion is a perpetual winner. It didn’t matter that Kansas was one of just six tracks Busch hadn’t earned a win at over at least six starts. Much like the conviction to sign him to a contract to race at 23XI at 43 years old in the first place, Denny Hamlin and MJ knew the Air Jordan branding on the No. 45 in the Heartland was the right the call.

Sure, teammate Bubba Wallace is younger and an emerging national brand, but Kurt Busch has embodied the standards of Air Jordan for almost two decades.

Win. Win. Win.

"The fact is Kurt Busch wins," Hamlin said after the race on Sunday. "It doesn’t matter about any previous history at this race track. We know when we show up if we’ve got a fast car, he is capable of winning. That’s what I saw in Kurt Busch."

To Hamlin and Jordan, signing Kurt Busch the driver to help them develop the Next Gen Car was of paramount importance, even more than the partial funding he brought to the table or any other intangible.

They needed the 2004 champion, Captain Freaking Restart and one of the most statistically impressive drivers on the marketplace.

"I told him, step one before we talked about how we’re going to fund it, how we’re going to do anything, is I need you to drive it," Hamlin said. "That’s all I care about is I need you. We’ll worry about funding it. We’ll worry about the crew chief later. I just need to know that you believe in this."

Maybe no one should overthink it, but there was some underlying risk in signing Busch, just because of who he used to be. It’s no secret that The Outlaw Kurt Busch had a reputation as a volatile personality or as a questionable teammate.

He was fired from Roush Racing and Team Penske before embarking on a two-year reflection and self-discovery tour while driving subpar Cup Series equipment.

Phoenix Racing put a smiley face on their car at Talladega Superspeedway the week after Busch left to join Furniture Row Racing.

Yes, that was a long time ago and every impression is that Busch has turned his life around over the past decade, but Hamlin needed to know for sure because he wanted Kurt Busch The Driver.

"I had heard things about Kurt from his peers and I interviewed three of his previous teammates," Hamlin said. "I took three of his previous teammates to lunch and just asked and kind of vetted Kurt out, because I never really had a close relationship with Kurt.

"Every single one of them, all three, said he was the best teammate I’ve ever had. That’s your peer review. That’s pretty much someone you need to have in your stable."

Busch needed to buy in too, of course.

There were several options on the table for a driver who had Monster Energy support, a proven resume both historically and in recent memory, and a racer who has a reputation of being able to mechanically lead a program in the right direction.

This is the new, modern, Kurt Busch by the way.:

"I’m just happy to have a ride and happy to give my best," Busch said. "Early in my career it was all about me, me, me, and now I’ve understood this is a team, and every element is super important. So I was able to do my job today. My team put me out there in position, and I wasn’t going to let anybody named Kyle beat me today."

Busch had to go through his older brother, Kyle, and defending champion Kyle Larson to reach victory lane -- a battle between the owner of four combined Bill France Cups.

It was a performance befitting of the Air Jordan brand and Busch was aware of that responsibility in the closing laps.

"It was that moment where I could not let the team down, and I didn’t want to have to make a phone call to M.J. afterwards on why we did not win," Busch said.

He meant it, too.

Jordan is that kind of owner. He expects excellence because he lived excellence in his own career. Instead, Jordan made the congratulatory call to his co-owner.

"As you can imagine, he was just so excited," Hamlin said. "Beyond just the brand itself, he’s been lock in step with me with everything. To have the trust and some of the outlandish decisions and hires that I want to make and how I want to build this team, I mean, I can’t do it without his support.

"I just can’t thank him, Curtis (Polk), and Gene (McCarthy) enough for believing in me and my vision. And, again, I have said that I want to build a championship contending team in five years. We’re at year 1.3. This is really, really early.

"I can’t emphasize enough, we had to build from the ground up and we are still continuing to build, so it’s a long process. It’s hard to come out here and compete and beat some of these organizations that have been around for 30 years. It’s just nearly impossible, obviously."

But it's easier to build a champion when you hire a champion to use as a pillar and Kurt Busch is a proven winner.