By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason – The story of Kyle Busch’s championship season will go down as one of the most incredible performances in the history of NASCAR.
Taking the darkness of the start of the year following his horrific crash in the NASCAR XFINITY Series’ opening race and transforming into the light of success is nothing short of a miraculous feat.
While the format can be questioned, nothing about what Busch pulled off in 2015 came easy, making the glory of a championship that much more sweet. When you take away the format and look at Busch’s performance – it’s difficult not to appreciate what he accomplished.
His championship won’t be looked back on with an asterisk but with appreciation. From the moment his season and life changed to where he is today led to the ultimate comeback story.
The road back to competition began with physical therapy seven days following the accident when he first began “doing something.” Saying, “It wasn’t much, but I just started doing something.”
Three days later, he was told that he was “going to try to stand up today.” His reaction? “You’re joking.” Despite being vertical for three seconds before being “about ready to black out,” he started working towards his return.
No previous NASCAR champion had to learn to walk again in the midst of the season. Facing this challenge and overcoming it in a driven manner allowed him to reach the level of success that he did when he returned.
That was just the start of his recovery. However, the pain paid off in the end. He believes rehab made him “mentally stronger and physically stronger.”
Like Busch has done during his ten seasons competing full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he pushed the limits throughout this period, doing “as much as we could, as quickly as we could.” When he was told to “just do 10 reps of this at this weight,” he said “I got more than that” and did “12 at this weight.”
He described the internal motivation as “just something that pushed me and gave me that drive to be, I guess, the man and person I am right now.”
This drive prompted his mid-May return, not even three months following the accident. The same passion that fueled his recovery translated to the race track. Early on, he discovered that his old approach wouldn’t work facing this unprecedented challenge. Something had to change, whether it be his mindset or style to return to the top.
He assumed after crashing in two of his first four races back that “if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen; it’s not meant to be.” This led him to “put it in somebody else’s hands,” and change his approach completely. From that moment forward, everything changed and that’s how he “raced the rest of the year.”
Once he slowed down in his return to the fast lane, it all began to come together. This led to the biggest challenge he expected to face during his return turning into the ultimate triumph.
The Las Vegas, Nevada native considered Sonoma Raceway “to be (the) biggest obstacle” and “the hardest thing for me to do this year.” However, he “put it in somebody else’s hands and just did what I needed to do behind the wheel, the right breaks went our way, we got on pit road when we needed to, and we won that thing.”
After five races, he was already halfway to meeting the requirements for competing for a title. While one victory sealed the deal, additional wins brought momentum. He went on to win three of the four races in July, including the prestigious Brickyard 400.
The Indianapolis victory highlighted the drive and change in approach that led Busch to greater heights during his return. He wasn’t able to capture the victory at the historic speedway in a healthy state before 2015, but because of the mindset adjustment the injury brought, he could piece the puzzle together.
The No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota team continued the consistency throughout August when they broke into the top-30 in the standings and became Chase eligible, leading up to the start of the playoffs in September. Once Chicagoland rolled around, it was no longer about playing catch up but using the clean slate to emerge as a threat for the championship.
It’s no secret that Busch has struggled in the Chase during previous seasons. Year after year, a stellar regular season unraveled with poor performances in the playoffs. However, redemption exists under the new format and provides the opportunity to recover and still succeed.
After finishing ninth in the opening Chase race, the seemingly inevitable trouble struck in New Hampshire where he hit the wall and went to the garage. He left Loudon with a 37th-place finish and headed to Dover needing a strong run to remain alive.
He produced a championship-caliber performance in the first elimination race, finishing second and advancing to Round 2.
The fresh start the Contender Round offered didn’t last long. Contact on pit road with Kyle Larson caused damage to the car and undid their flawless day up until that point.
While in previous years, this could have led to disaster for the team, they powered through it and bounced back after a 20th-place finish in Charlotte. This approach reflects the same mindset that propelled Busch’s recovery as he kept pushing forward, fighting through the adversity.
He still flirted with the bubble in Kansas and Talladega, but was able to advance to the third round, marking the farthest he has ever made it in the Chase.
Now, all eyes were on the Sprint Cup. The team’s mindset heading into the Chase under the new format was “about accumulating points and keeping your average finish up,” according to rookie crew chief Adam Stevens.
They perfected this game plan in the Eliminator Round, scoring three top-five finishes. This provided the opportunity to head to Homestead-Miami Speedway and compete for a championship.
Nine months ago, the thought of being in this position was unimaginable. However, by following Busch’s lead to “just let everything be,” they exceled.
The championship race wasn’t going to be easy. Having to battle the best of the best over the past two seasons in Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon who had a better average finish in the Chase and Martin Truex Jr. who had impressive speed throughout the year, leaving with the trophy would be a tough task.
However, Busch’s speed and strength gave him a leg up as everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing “prepare(d) such a great race car.” He was fastest among the Championship 4 throughout the night and was flawless, which led to victory and the championship.
The emotion of the accomplishment sank in when was “coming out of Turn 4, not being crazy, but there was a tear that did go across my cheek.”
Capping off the improbable comeback in this manner made his achievement even more impressive and drew him to the conclusion that with “no doubt,” 2015 was the best year of his life. His secret? To “surround yourself with good people in business and in sports, and it sometimes will more than likely pay it back.”
The story of Busch’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the greatest comebacks the sport has ever seen. It will be a story told for generations that teaches the power of hard work.
Kyle Busch made the impossible possible in 2015. His injury changed him not only as a race car driver, but as a man, allowing him to reach new heights, find a new approach and capture the championship in what will be remembered as one of the most incredible years of his life.
Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton