CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Busch said he supports wearing a mask in public so "we all can take care of our neighbor" amid the coronavirus pandemic, a rare instance of the record-setting NASCAR champion wading into a social issue.
The 35-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who won the top-tier Cup Series season title last year and in 2015, rarely speaks on matters not involving racing. However, Busch entered the debate after images from short tracks showed packed grandstands with little social distancing and few people wearing masks this past weekend.
Busch retweeted a photo from South Alabama Speedway in Ozark and added his own message Sunday before the Cup Series' Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where fans were not allowed as part of NASCAR's health and safety regulations. He applauded racing fans for supporting their local short tracks but suggested mandatory masks for admission for "healthier practices."
The responses were mixed, not unexpected when it comes to the most polarizing driver in NASCAR. Busch is beloved by his "Rowdy Nation" base but loathed by others for his overwhelming success and confident, sometimes confrontational manner.
After winning the Xfinity Series race Monday night at CMS — it was his 97th career victory in that series; his record for combined wins in NASCAR's three national circuits also includes 56 in Cup Series competition and 57 in the third-tier Truck Series for 210 total — Busch was asked why he stepped into the debate on mask usage.
"With where we're at today, people are saying that masks don't mean anything," Busch said. "I still think there's a sense of human hygiene and taking care of your neighbor. You go to a race track and you cough because you get water down the wrong pipe or whatever it might be, or if you sneeze or whatever, at least you are keeping some of that to yourself rather than just spraying, right?"
Busch added he doesn't think masks can fully stop the spread of the coronavirus but believes they are useful when social distancing can't be practiced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the use of cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
Hence his reaction to the photo from the Alabama short track.
"I saw the grandstands packed and just figured, 'Hey, you know, we all can take care of our neighbor,'" he said. "That's just kind of my idea. It's arguable whether or not they really work. I just think it's common courtesy."
Under the health plan NASCAR is using since resuming its season May 17 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway, masks are required for all personnel on track property. Spectators are currently not permitted, and NASCAR does not expect that to change through the Cup Series race at Talladega Motor Speedway on June 21, which is as far as the schedule has been revised to date.
Everyone permitted to attend a race is on a pre-approved list and must pass through a health screening area before entering the venue. Masks must be worn starting at the health screening area, and NASCAR has said anyone not following guidelines is subject to a $50,000 fine and removal from the property.
There have been no flagrant violations, but fans did note Busch and fellow Cup Series driver Chase Elliott were not wearing masks or socially distancing when Busch briefly consoled Elliott on pit road moments after Elliott missed out on a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600. In that instance, both had just removed their helmets and climbed from their cars and neither had yet retrieved his mask.
Since NASCAR's return, Busch has worn a variety of colorful masks that often pair with his firesuit. His mask Monday night at CMS had the Appalachian State University logo as he honored the 2020 graduating class for the Boone college, which was also featured on his winning car, the JGR No. 54 Toyota.
On the track, Busch finally got to victory lane with the win in his fifth race since he returned from the 10-week shutdown. He is entered in all seven of the races NASCAR announced in its first revised schedule, a span that continues Tuesday night as the Truck Series returns to the track for the first time since the shutdown and concludes Wednesday night with the fourth Cup Series race in 11 days.