Kyle Busch’s 2015 ranged from a hospital bed to a championship trophy
When the 2015 season opened with the 57th annual Daytona 500, Kyle Busch was recovering from surgery in a hospital room blocks away from the speedway. When the 2015 season came to an end at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Busch was celebrating his fifth win of the season and hoisting his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship trophy.
Few could have imagined the comeback story were true. Few could have pulled it off as well as Busch.
Starting the year with high hopes at Joe Gibbs Racing with longtime XFINITY crew chief Adam Stevens making the transition to the No. 18 Sprint Cup team, Busch never got the chance to make an impact early.
As soon as the wreck happened, as soon as I hit, I knew instantly my right leg broke. I could feel it. It was just a sharp pain.
While running at the front of the pack in the XFINITY Series season-opening race at Daytona, Busch’s car was involved in a wreck and slid down the track and hard into a concrete wall that was not protected by a Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier.
The impact nearly head-on, at close to 90 miles per hour resulted in a compound fracture of the right leg and a mid-foot fracture of the left foot. Busch pulled himself out of the car, was attended to at the scene of the incident and transported to the local hospital for further treatments.
"Obviously, that was a whale of a hit — the hardest I’ve had in NASCAR competition," Busch said of the 90-G impact. "As soon as the wreck happened, as soon as I hit, I knew instantly my right leg broke. I could feel it. It was just a sharp pain."
The diagnosis and multiple surgeries had many in the NASCAR industry suggesting Busch should take the entire season off to recover, instead focusing on making a solid return in 2016. JGR brought in two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton to run the No. 18 Toyota in the Daytona 500, while David Ragan assumed driving duties the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
However, Busch proved to be as tenacious and determined off the track as he is on. All while preparing for the birth of his first child, Busch continually worked with physical therapists and doctors in an effort to speed up the recovery and rehabilitation process, making strides quicker than anyone would have suspected.
On April 15, Busch met with members of the NASCAR media an walked them through the replay of the incident, breaking it down like a forensics video, describing in full detail what happened, what he was thinking and what could have gone differently.
On May 13, NASCAR ruled that Busch would receive a medial waiver, but had to be in the top 30 in the driver standings in order to be eligible to make the Chase.
To the surprise of many, Busch’s return to racing took place during the Sprint All-Star weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Riding around the garage on a Skittle’s cooler, Busch finished sixth after starting 19th.
"I’ll be sore for a couple days, just muscles that haven’t been woken up like this in a little while," Busch said after his first race back in the car. "It’s nothing new. Typically I get that in the beginning of the year anyway. It takes a few weeks to kind of get warmed up to things, your body to kind of settle in. Being out of the race car the longest I’ve ever been in my career, it’s a wake-up call for myself to get back rolling. Other than that, just feel fine."
Missing the first 11 races of the season, Busch’s biggest test came the following week during the Coca-Cola 600, the longest and one of the most difficult races of the season. Busch endured throughout the entire event to finish just outside the top 10 in 11th spot.
Crashes in two of the next three races hurt Busch’s chances of jumping into the top 30 in the standings, but a statement race at the Sonoma Raceway road course gave Busch the first positive step toward the goal of making the Chase.
Busch returned to Daytona, the site of his vicious incident in February, and finished a respectable 17th at the unpredictable restrictor-plate track. However, the over next five weeks Busch would show he was not only back, he was better than ever.
The JGR driver rattled off three consecutive wins at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and perhaps the biggest victory of his career, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Five weeks after laying on the ground next to his heavily damaged car at Daytona, Busch was kneeling on the IMS frontstretch to kiss the famous bricks along the start-finish line to celebrate the victory.
After the Indy win, Busch set out to make history in an attempt to win four consecutive regular season races. Busch and his No. 18 team gave it their all, too. Starting on the pole, the No. 18 Toyota was strong throughout the race and was playing the fuel strategy game while chasing Joey Logano for the race lead. When Logano’s tank ran dry, Busch maintained a five-second lead over second place, but on the final lap, Busch’s car slowed and crept along the bottom of the track out of fuel. Teammate Matt Kenseth won the race and Busch coasted home 21st.
The fuel mileage gamble did not pay off, but thanks to a second-place finish the following week at Watkins Glen, Busch officially locked himself in the top 30 in the driver standings and earned a spot in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
Busch opened the Chase with a ninth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, but a flat tire halfway through the New Hampshire Motor Speedway race send the No. 18 hard into the outside wall and resulted in a 37th-place finish. Needing a big day to advance to the next round, Busch finished second the following week at Dover International Speedway and advanced to the Contender Round.
Busch had a solid outing going at Charlotte Motor Speedway to open the second round of the Chase, but contact with Kyle Larson coming to pit road damaged the car and hurt the handling of the No. 18 Toyota. Despite the 20th-place finish, Busch was able to advance to the Eliminator Round with a fifth at Kansas and an 11th at Talladega.
The controversial Talladega finish actually played into Busch’s favor. Prior to the first attempt to restart the race under green-white-checkered finish, Busch was outside the Chase cutoff. When the field was reset for the second attempt, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota was able to gain a handful of spots, enough to keep his title hopes alive.
I just can’t believe with everything that happened this year and all the turmoil, all the things that I went through, that my wife (Samantha) went through and the people that are around me went through.
With others becoming embroiled in controversy and rivalries, Busch and Stevens kept their heads down throughout the Eliminator Round and earned finishes of fifth, fourth and fourth at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, respectively. The consistency was enough to earn a spot in the Championship 4 with Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.
In the final race of the year, Busch started third and was the first of the championship contenders to lead a lap. Fighting at the front of the field for much of the event, Busch had to hold off Brad Keselowski and fellow title contender Kevin Harvick in the closing laps of the race. Leading the final seven circuits, Busch crossed the finish line to earn his fifth win of the season and his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
"It’s pretty unbelievable! A dream of a lifetime, a dream come true and something that only happens every so often," Busch said after his championship celebration in Homestead. "I just can’t believe with everything that happened this year and all the turmoil, all the things that I went through, that my wife (Samantha) went through and the people that are around me went through. This championship is all for these guys, my wife, my family, everyone who has had to sacrifice so much to get me here to this place today, whether it was on my team right now, or on my teams in the past. It’s really awesome, awesome, awesome."
Nine months after sustaining major injuries and undergoing multiple surgeries, Busch was on top of the NASCAR world. Few, including Busch, could have imagined the turnaround would be so quick.
"When I had the crash and when I knew instantly that the right leg was broken, the left foot was broke, I was really worried," said Busch. "I don’t know if it flashed before my eyes or if I just thought it, but it was like, man, I’m going to have to go back to laying decals. I was like, man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car again. I just didn’t know how severe it was. But fortunately for me it wasn’t that bad, and I was able to put it all back together and be here today. But it did worry me for sure. You know, it crossed my mind. I was thinking, too, for Samantha (wife) and for Brexton (son), I was like, man, my wife is pregnant, I’ve got no job, so I was a bit worried.
"But you know, I think that’s just the sort of emotion that goes through in that particular moment, but past that, everything has kind of gone really well, and to be back in this place that I am right now is even better than I was before," he said.
While Busch’s talent behind the wheel was never in question, his quest to earn a championship often met with struggles or bad luck in the Chase. Faced with adversity on and off the racetrack in 2015, Busch showed the maturity and determination to not only contend for a championship, but also earn the title at the end of the day.
In addition to his Sprint Cup success, Busch also earned six XFINITY Series wins and two Camping World Truck Series victories in 2015. With 154 total victories across NASCAR’s top three national touring series, Busch’s 2015 Sprint Cup title moved him into a category with some of the sport’s best drivers.