Stranger than fiction: Kyle Busch’s comeback story simply remarkable
For better and for worse, NASCAR’s truest stories have always been far stranger than fiction.
Who would have believed the first Daytona 500 in 1959 would have ended in a photo finish that wasn’t settled until three days later?
What were the odds that a last-lap crash and a fist fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers in 1979 would thrust NASCAR into the national spotlight?
Who would have believed Kurt Busch would have a right-front wheel and tire fall completely off his car in the last race of 2004, yet he would miss hitting the wall by inches, stay on the lead lap and win a championship in that same race? Not remotely probable.
How unlikely was it that only one driver in NASCAR would win as many as three championships in a row from 1949 to 2005, and then Jimmie Johnson would go crazy and win five in a row from 2006-10? Unfathomable.
How remarkable was it that Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in 2011, one day after his 20th birthday, in only his second Cup start? And the fact that he won it with Wood Brothers Racing, a team that hadn’t won a single race in almost a decade? No one saw that coming for sure.
For that matter, who could have seen that Tony Stewart would go winless in the first 26 races of 2011 and then win five of the 10 Chase races to take the title in a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards when the two ended the year with exactly the same number of points? Preposterous, right?
Add Kyle Busch to the list of fact-is-stranger-than-truth NASCAR champions.
Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Busch made good on the promise he had flashed so often in his career by finally winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in his 11th full season of trying.
What makes Busch’s story remarkable is that nine months ago, he wasn’t sure he’d ever walk again, let alone race competitively. Busch suffered a horrifying head-on crash to a bare concrete wall in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona in February. The impact broke Busch’s right leg and left foot, leaving him hospitalized for several days while his wife, Samantha, was six months pregnant with the couple’s first child, Brexton, who was born in May.
Almost immediately, Busch’s first thoughts turned to how many races he would miss and what would have to happen for he to become championship eligible. Even NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton wasn’t sure at first.
"Must have been the next day at least when Helton came over to visit with me in the hospital, and we were talking with him about what’s the scenario going to be with me coming back," Busch said. "Am I still going to be eligible for it? They didn’t have any clue at that point, so they went back and discussed it and came up with the waiver that I still had to maintain everything that every other driver has to maintain and be able to go out there and perform and get the job done."
In his first four races back, Busch was just so-so, with a best finish of ninth at Pocono and finishes of 36th at Dover and 43rd at Michigan.
But then, he caught fire, winning four of the next five races. Busch didn’t win again until the season-ending race at Homestead, but he ended the year with that race win and four straight top-five finishes to win his first Sprint Cup championship for himself, the first for Toyota and the fourth for JGR.
And on a night when Busch’s childhood hero, Jeff Gordon, raced for the last time, Gordon offered up his admiration for the newly-minted champion.
"His talent is so strong, and that team really found some things this year," Gordon said of Busch. "But I will say that what he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle. … When he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, but you can tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate, and I think he just — between having a baby, the thing that happened to him at Daytona, the time with his wife, and other things, maybe Joe Gibbs, I don’t know, family, friends, I think that time, he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and I don’t know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before, and I think he showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship."
Even Kevin Harvick, last year’s champion and a man who has locked horns with Busch on occasion, was impressed.
"I think when you race your whole life and you accomplish what you’ve raced for your whole life, it’s exciting," Harvick said. "I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is. You know, it’s fun to see that excitement. He broke his leg at Daytona, and to come back from everything that he came back from … that’s a great comeback story from where he was after Daytona."
Yes, it was. And fact really is stranger than truth, at least in NASCAR.