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A Horrible Wreck May Have Created A Champion

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 24 2015
Kyle Busch finally has the Sprint Cup championship he's been Chasing and he got it the hard way. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Kyle Busch finally has the Sprint Cup championship he’s been Chasing and he got it the hard way. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Early last decade, a small group of beat writers were sitting around in an infield media center at a NASCAR track somewhere and were solving the racing world’s problems. The subject of Kurt Busch and his noteworthy driving talents came up.

bugopinionAs all nodded in agreement until one “expert” upped the know-it-all ante and spit this out: His younger brother is even better.

The nodding stopped.

Early last Sunday evening, in the darkness that had settled in on Homestead-Miami Speedway, that statement was officially transformed from spittle to reality.

Kyle Busch left defending champion Kevin Harvick panting in the late-race gloamin, cruised to victory in the season-ending Sprint Cup Series race at Homestead and won the 2015 championship in one of the most unlikely comeback adventures in NASCAR history.

His long march back from hospital bed to trophy-hoist was so compelling that it actually made it easy to feel good about a guy about whom it was not always easy to feel good.

Oh, it’s always been easy to marvel at Busch’s abundant and undeniable driving talents. Hell of wheelman is what he has been since coming into the sport. In everything he’s wheeled.

The problem some people had with him was his attitude, his brattiness. It irritated fans and

Kyle Busch celebrates with his Joe Gibbs Racing team after winning Sunday in Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo Garry Eller)

Kyle Busch celebrates with his Joe Gibbs Racing team after winning Sunday in Homestead. (RacinToday/HHP photo Garry Eller)

fellow competitors alike. It likely played a part in Busch being involved in on-track scrapes with people like Kevin Harvick and in the garages at Kansas a couple years back when he was jumped by team owner Richard Childress.

That attitude also may, some say, have been somewhat responsible for Busch’s failure to win a Cup championship until this year: You see, you don’t really have to make friends in the garages and on the tracks, but you simply cannot afford to pile up enemies.

Perhaps Busch’s worst enemy was Busch himself. His immaturity-induced tendencies to swing for the fences when a bunt would have won the game cost him even more success. Patience, former teammate and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, said, has not traditionally been part of Busch’s game.

“Sometimes he never knew where to stop pushing the car to the edge, and especially at a track like this (Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval) when you’re right up against the wall, taking the right side off of it, and we saw it even in the XFINITY Series, you know, yesterday,” Gordon said Sunday evening. “If you can put pressure on him, you can kind of force him to push it over the edge because he’s capable of pushing it so far.”

It all added up to Busch being the best driver in Cup who had never won a championship. Until, that is, Sunday.

The relevant portion of Busch’s career began in 2005 and it began with a ride for Hendrick Motorsports, where he replaced revered Texan and two-time Cup champion, Terry Labonte in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

And it began decently, if not spectacularly. He won races for Hendrick in 2005, 2006 and

Former teammate Jeff Gordon paid Kyle Busch a visit in Victory Lane on Sunday (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett )

Former teammate Jeff Gordon paid Kyle Busch a visit in Victory Lane on Sunday (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

2007, but apparently he didn’t win many friends over on Papa Joe Hendrick Boulevard.

In June of 2007, team owner Rick Hendrick held a press conference at which it was announced that his team had hired everybody’s favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to drive for him. In order to make room for Earnhardt Jr., Busch was let go.

At that press conference, Hendrick said the decision to part ways with Busch was friendly. He said he and Busch had been in discussions about a new contract but, it became “obvious to me that other people were talking to Kyle at the time and he was a guy in the garage area that at his age and his ability, which is an unbelievable talent; he had people picking on him just to make sure he was going to have an opening or an opportunity.”

Ultimately, Hendrick said, both he and Busch agreed a “fresh start” was needed and Busch was out and friend of the family Earnhardt was in.

A short time later, Busch would go on a radio program and dispute many of the things that Hendrick said.

Busch left Hendrick Motorsports with a slam of the door behind him.

Joe Gibbs’s sporting roots are anchored in the turf of National Football League stadiums. He is a multiple Super Bowl-winning legend who became that by being able to deal with the massive attitudes, egos and bank accounts that populate locker rooms in contemporary athletics.

When he jumped into racing, he admits, he had very little technical knowledge. What he did have was an ability to get the most out of people.

“So my job,” Gibbs said Sunday, “is to try and help pick the people.”

Some of those people have big talent but need work on the intangibles. For instance, when Busch joined Gibbs team, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin – two anti-hero drivers – were already in place.

Of adding a third anti-hero – one whose post-race victory bows smelled more like a big old F

The champ, the car and the flag. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

The champ, the car and the flag. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

you to critics and expressions of joy – Gibbs told reporters on hiring day, “If you offered Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch to most guys out there, they’d do that at all costs to make that work.”

Gibbs said he first heard of Kyle Busch from his son, Coy Gibbs.

“Coy was racing trucks,” Gibbs remembers, “and I called him to say, Hey, how’s it going? He goes, ‘It’s going pretty good, I’m kind of mid-pack, but there’s some kid here in a truck, and he’s two-tenths faster than the field. I hope they kick him out of here.  He’s only 16. I think he was cheating on that, so they did kick him out.’ That’s the first time I heard of Kyle.”

When Busch became available after his Hendrick days, Gibbs jumped. Some must have though into the deep end.

Busch immediately started piling up victories and podiums and top-10s. He finished fourth at Daytona during Speedweeks, fourth the following week in Fontana and just like that had the points lead. He would win eight times in 2008 – that was twice as many victories as he had claimed in three years at Hendrick.

Gordon, on Sunday, called Busch a better driver than was he.

But Gordon had four championships and Busch zero.

At Speedweeks this year, it appeared that Busch’s career might be over and with that zero a permanent feature of his racing resume. He was involved in a bad crash in the XFINITY Series race the day before the Daytona 500. He slammed into a concrete wall at 180 mph and broke bones in his leg and foot – two parts of the anatomy that are extremely important to race car drivers.

Television cameras showed Busch struggling to get out of his car and then, sitting on the ground wincing in pain as track workers looked on with white faces.

“You know,” his Cup crew chief, Adam Stevens said, “when we saw him get out and sit on the door there at Daytona in the XFINITY race, I mean, I didn’t know what kind of shape his legs were in.  I didn’t know if it was going to be this year or next year or if he would walk again.  I had no idea.  I’m not a doctor and I wasn’t there, and I spent five or six hours in the hospital with Coach and Jimmy and everybody trying to put a plan together and couldn’t even get in to see him.  I had no idea how bad a shape he was in.”

Busch began rehabilitating his injuries fairly quickly. But there was a lot of bed time – “That was about 10 days after the crash that I started getting vertical.  It’s amazing how much you lose in muscle mass or whatever to just be able to do that again.  You felt limp, like you had no control over anything down there.”

Hence there was a lot of thinking time.

After missing 11 weeks, Busch was back in a Cup car.

And, amazingly, a guy whose career came ever so close to being wadded up by that concrete wall, was competitive immediately. And then he was winning. And then he was in the Chase and then he was in the Championship Round of four in the Chase at Homestead.

And all the way he was also showing an equally amazing attitudinal transformation.

Busch was asked about that. He kind of fumbled for words.

“I mean, it’s probably more of a question for my wife maybe or Adam, but I just – I don’t know,” the 30-year-old native of Las Vegas said. “I guess I feel more at peace a little bit.  You know, I’ve always thought that I’ve been in this sport and been kind of –not because of things that have been said to me but just because you feel like you’re always fighting for a job.

“There’s always younger, better people coming up through the ranks behind you.  I was just like, you know what, if I am meant to be a race car driver and if I am meant to be champion, then I’ll continue to be here for long haul. So I’ll stop focusing on worrying about my job and just let it be.  That seemed to help, but also just going through the rehab process I think just made me more mentally tough know that I can do physically and mentally, when you’re doing some of those moves, you know, in therapy, when Ken wasn’t with me he’d give me a list of things to do and I just had to do it.  You don’t know how many times I just wanted to stop and just be like, you know what, I’m not going to do the rest today.  But I powered through it and did what I needed to do, did what I could do, but, you know, when Ken would tell me just do 10 reps of this at this weight, I was always like, I got more than that; I’m doing 12 at this weight.

‘It was just something that pushed me and gave me that drive to be, I guess, the man and person I am right now.”

Or, you could ask his peers. Gordon, who retired following the Homestead race, noticed a new man, person and driver.

“I will say that what he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle,” Gordon said. “I don’t know what it is.  I’ve never talked to him and got into details about it.  But 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.”

And probably more championships.

Because The Kid with the ‘tude now, it appears, is a man. It appears he has the complete game, thanks, perhaps, to a high speed encounter with that wall at Daytona.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 24 2015


  • G Eck says:

    I’m not a huge Busch fan but what he did in 2015 was a spectacular. He sat out those race due to a horrible racing incident we all saw with two broken leg bones. Too many are acting as if it was a voluntary rest due to a vicous hangnail.

    Now KB stop running Xfinity and Truck races

  • Sully says:

    The only thing Kyle Busch did with his P20 real points, was to show the world the stupidity of this format. He is no more a season long Champ then if Brian decides next year that mid race in the infield all 43 drivers have rounds of musical chairs, the last one sitting is the season long Champ. This fawning by some is disgusting and fantasy ridden. Thank goodness most seem to smell and see BS. This is not a popular gimme, by any means.