Within the context of the 2022 season and present-day NASCAR alone, Kurt Busch's win at Kansas Speedway marked his very first driving for 23XI Racing's newly-formed No. 45 team. But beneath the surface of Busch's victory, there was much more to the number Busch won with -- and the weekend he won his first race in it -- than was immediately apparent.
When they were looking to expand from a one to two-car team last year, 23XI Racing had sought to use the No. 45, the same number that team co-owner Michael Jordan used when he returned to the NBA in 1995. But the team was told to seek the permission of Kyle Petty -- as the No. 45 had belonged to his son, Adam Petty.
A fourth-generation racer of his famous family, Adam Petty had used the No. 45 on his climb through NASCAR's ladder system. A promising and popular driver, Petty was competing full-time in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2000, and in April of that year made his Cup Series debut at Texas as he prepared to move up to stock car racing's highest level full-time starting in 2001.
But on May 12, 2000, Petty crashed while practicing for a race at New Hampshire after the throttle hung on his car entering Turn 3. Petty, who was only 19 years old, died instantly of a basilar skull fracture. Kyle Petty would race Adam's No. 45 for the rest of his Cup career, and the number was not used by any team after 2008, when the original Petty Enterprises race team was dissolved through a merger.
After consulting his other children, son Austin and daughter Montgomery Lee, Kyle Petty gave his blessing for 23XI Racing to use his son's number. And speaking to NBC Sports, Petty shared that he had been intensely rooting for Kurt Busch throughout the final laps on Sunday, and took heart in seeing Busch's No. 45 take the checkered flag.
"If you go back and watch his post-race interview with Jamie Little when he got out the car he mentions just the number. He mentions it numerous times," Petty told NBC Sports. "... I have to say for me that a little bit of me smiled every time (Busch said the No. 45) because I'm like, 'that's right it's the 45. It should have been there a long time ago under different circumstances but you got it there, man.'"
The timing of Busch's win in the No. 45 was not lost on anyone, including Busch himself. Sunday's race took place a full 22 years and three days after Adam Petty died, and Busch discussed the blessing his race team received from the Petty family to use the number in his post-race press conference.
"I could feel things early on with Kyle and the way that he wanted this No. 45 car to have success. It's a small, spiritual connection," Busch said. "I'm happy that we've won, and also it's a representation of a brand. It's the No. 45, and with us winning we're even just continuing to build and build and build. We wanted the No. 45 to be successful, and I'll now be able to call Kyle and I'll find him in Level Cross and we'll all go get a drink together and say thanks."
Busch's win capped off what turned into a very happy four days for the Petty family at a time that normally commemorates their darkest moment. On May 12 -- the 22nd anniversary of Adam's death -- Austin Petty and his wife celebrated the birth of a baby daughter, Ellington Montgomery Petty.
Beyond the circumstances of the Petty family, Busch's win in the No. 45 marked the first win for that car number since LeeRoy Yarbrough drove the number to victory at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in May of 1964.