DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The 24 Hours of Le Mans remains a goal for Kyle Busch, but the two-time NASCAR Cup champion seems amenable to a GT return in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Busch made his Rolex 24 debut in 2020 with the Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3. Though he enjoyed the experience, he also dropped hints that he would be “all hands on deck” to go for an overall victory if Toyota ever entered a prototype. And with the top level of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship being rebranded and restructured with an LMDh car that can race at Le Mans for the first time in more than 30 years, that seemed the natural path for Busch’s return.
But Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, who spearheaded the deal that aligned Busch and Vasser Sullivan two years ago, said Busch “would absolutely do GT again” despite retaining his aspirations to “get across the pond” to Le Mans.
“I was just with him a week ago, and he’s like, ‘Dave, I’ve got a bucket list. You know that. Please when are you going to help get (to Le Mans)?’ ” Wilson told NBC Sports with a laugh at Daytona International Speedway last week. “He watches it. He’s a fan. He still wants to get there. But he wants to come back (to the Rolex 24) and have another shot at it. He really enjoyed that experience. But he also wants to make sure it’s under a circumstance where he’s not weighting down the team.”
It’s unclear if Toyota would enter the new premier GTP division IMSA with an LMDh car because the manufacturer already competes in the top category (Le Mans Hypercar, or LMH) of the World Endurance Championship (whose centerpiece event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans). Those LMH cars and teams also will be allowed to compete against LMDh cars in the 2023 Rolex 24 and other events in IMSA (which will rebrand its top class next year as Grand Touring Prototype, or GTP).
“The question is what happens longer term on the WEC side of things and what happens with LMH,” Wilson said. “On the surface, what IMSA have done with LMDh from a platform perspective is really good, and as an engineer and a fan, I’d love one day to get back to a prototype program in concert to complement a GT program. But for the foreseeable future, our focus is GT.”
Toyota also recently unveiled a new GR concept car at the Tokyo Auto Salon that reaffirmed its commitment to GT3 – and also might help reignite Busch’s interest in the class.
“It’s a little more complicated (on LMDh) because we don’t have any purview to what Toyota does in Europe (with WEC),” Wilson said. “We’re part of the same family, but it’s different. Lexus U.S. have the attitude, and I think it’s appropriate, that before we look to prototype and over the fence, we need to establish ourselves in the GT ranks. We need to challenge for championships on a consistent basis before we have any business looking at a prototype. I think that’s the correct mentality.
“With the concept car at Tokyo Auto Salon, it’s easy to connect the dots to a longer-term future in GT. That’s where our focus is. It’s just more is coming down the pike, and we’re extremely excited about that.”
Vasser Sullivan driver Jack Hawksworth became tight with Busch as teammates at the 2020 Rolex 24. They still trade texts often, and their paths sometimes cross at the TRD driving simulator in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Hawksworth, who has been with Toyota since 2017 and starred in some national campaigns, believes he could be paired again with the Joe Gibbs Racing star.
“Yeah, I think Kyle would love to come back and run the GT from what I understand,” Hawksworth told NBC Sports. “The LMDh is a very different car from what he’s used to, so that would be a hard step, I think. But I think he could come back and run GT for sure. He’s got some more experience in the class from doing it in 2020. He’s got experience there, and now if he’s going to come back and do it again, he’d be starting way ahead of where he started last time.
“Also with Next Gen moving more toward this style of car, it’s going to make it easier for those guys to transfer over. At the minute, it’s difficult because the old car was so different to what we’re racing, the learning curve was pretty big. Whereas I feel like with the Next Gen car, guys will be more up to speed, and Kyle’s obviously a very talented guy. I’d like to see him come back and give it another go at GT. I think his second time around, he’d feel a bit more comfortable and do a very good job.”
Despite the similarities between the Next Gen car and GT3, Austin Cindric was the only full-time NASCAR Cup driver in this year’s Rolex 24 field. After Chase Elliott made his IMSA debut in last year’s Rolex 24, he declined a shot to return — the most notable in a dearth of NASCAR driver attendance at Daytona that was chalked up to scheduling conflicts with the new Clash at the Coliseum event this weekend and an offseason crammed with Next Gen prep.
Wilson was unsurprised at the lack of NASCAR drivers in the Rolex 24 because of the commitment required to be competitive.
“One of the things that these guys, certainly Kyle, would tell you, the quality level of Gold and Platinum sports car racers is so high,” Wilson said. “And it’s not just showing up for the weekend and jumping in the car. It’s doing all the work in the simulator weeks and weeks and weeks beforehand. It’s making a commitment where the culmination is this is the Rolex 24, and so given all the heavy lifting on the NASCAR side, it doesn’t surprise me there haven’t been more drivers because I think we’re in an all hands on deck mentality.
“It’s being fair to these professional teams in terms of commitment, resources and time that’s difficult to do right now.”
Hawksworth, who has done Next Gen simulator testing for TRD, said there likely will be more future synergy between the series.
“Certainly I think with the new car, I think you’re going to get more crossover,” he said. “A guy who’s got a lot of road racing experience will be able to make a bigger difference with the Next Gen car than perhaps he would have done with the old Cup car, and likewise, I think it’s going to bring the road course level of driver up in NASCAR. I feel those guys are going to be way more prepared for jumping in this style of racing. It’s just going to merge the two skillsets a little bit.”
There also could be more inherent NASCAR participation through team involvement. Similar to Toyota’s connection through its Lexus support of Vasser Sullivan, Ford’s NASCAR drivers will have a natural pipeline to the Rolex 24 through a new two-car GTD Pro that was announced last week.
The factory-backed Ford GT3 Mustang was created by Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports, which will manage the program.
Ford Performance Motorsports global director Mark Rushbrook said there potentially would be Cup drivers for the car’s 2024 Rolex 24 debut. Ford placed NASCAR drivers Cindric, Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe and Hailie Deegan in GT4 Mustangs during an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona International Speedway last Friday.
“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said. “We’re using GT4s because that’s what we have to help with Austin, Harrison, Chase and Hailie. We think it’s a great opportunity for them and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”
Damn I look TIRED 😂 https://t.co/v2S1rpnP0C
— Austin Cindric (@AustinCindric) January 30, 2022
In the meantime, it’s likely the 2023 Rolex 24 could feature more NASCAR drivers as they get acclimated to the Next Gen.
Cindric certainly wants to return after finishing fifth with the No. 15 Mercedes in GTD Pro, his first Rolex 24 start since 2019.
“I obviously feel like I’ve grown as a driver since then, but you never really know until you show up,” he said. “You see guys like (GTD Pro winner) Mathieu (Jaminet) and people who are dedicated to their cars and their craft and do this on a yearly basis and are committed to manufacturers. I’ve never driven the car and am up against a field of pro drivers. I consider myself one, but it’s been a little while.
“I’ve been really personally satisfied with how things have gone, so it’s been a lot of fun. Even during the stint, I keyed up the radio and said, ‘I’m having fun.’ It’s a cool feeling to be back. It’s a race like we’ve talked about, I try to get in this race every year, and situations are forever changing. I love this event and would love to walk out of here with a watch. I think I’ve been able to represent myself well to come back on merit. It’s always not been easy, but certainly I’ll keep trying until I get that watch.”