By Lori Worley
When Kyle Busch headed to Sonoma Raceway in 2015, the last thing he was thinking about was how he'd celebrate after he won the race - that's because it truly wasn't something he thought was possible.
Busch had missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup season with a broken right leg and left ankle after experiencing a horrific crash at the season-opening Daytona 500. He was able to get back into the car during the Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May - and was also granted a waiver so that he could attempt to make the Chase. Not surprisingly, he had a good run, finishing sixth in his first event back.
Less than a month later, he was back in victory lane, winning at Michigan in an XFINITY Series race. On June 28, he completed his remarkable comeback by winning the Sprint Cup Series event at Sonoma, the first of five wins to come, including the season-ending and championship-clinching race at Homestead.
That victory at Sonoma proved to be a surprise of sorts, even though Busch had scored one win here before, in 2008.
"Sonoma was an interesting weekend," Busch recalled. "I certainly circled that as being the most challenging race upon my return. It was my fifth race back and through practice on Friday I was kind of sore and after qualifying on Saturday I was still a little sore.
"Each night I iced it to get all the swelling and inflammation out as best I could before the race on Sunday."
As painful as it was, Busch never once considered not getting in the car on race day.
"I always thought I'd be able to make it through the race - I just didn't know how hard it would be," he said. "About halfway through we were running 17th or 12th, something like that - we weren't running all that great. And I was like; this is going to be a lot harder than I expected it to be.
"But then we had a caution fall our way. We had just come off pit road and it kind of cycled us up to the top five. Then we kind of raced around there a little bit, and I forgot about everything going on because then I had something to go for. I thought we could get a win."
And once he realized he actually could find his way to victory lane, there was no stopping Busch.
"There were some guys that were better than us… but then again another caution came out with about eight laps to go so we came down and put tires on and restarted seventh, I think," Busch said. "Then we drove right up through everybody and passed everybody and got the lead and I thought 'Holy cow, we've got a really good shot to win this thing,' and I only had to worry about my brother (Kurt) behind me.
"He was really fast and he was catching me, but certainly the race was the perfect distance for me to score the victory in my fifth race back. I certainly felt it afterwards and was pretty sore the next few days…but all's well when it ends well."
Busch was happy that he and his brother were able to dominate last year's race and finish up front together.
"Yeah, it was pretty cool to go 1-2 at Sonoma," he said. "It was the first time for us to be able to do that. Other brothers had done it in the past but it was a first for us. Road courses aren't our normal - we race ovals so it it's kind of challenging for both of us and for both brothers to be as good as we are at that road course race was pretty cool."
The win at Sonoma proved to be the catalyst for Busch's championship season as he ended up winning three of the next four races.
"Sonoma was a huge kick start because we went on to win a few races," he said. "I kind of went into Sonoma like I'm just going to let this race play out and I'm just going to take what I can get and take what the race gives me. I was thinking I wasn't going to worry about pushing too hard and I'm not going to worry about trying to do something more than I can do or more than the car can do.
"It was a huge learning situation for me and a good experience that helped lead me through the rest of the season."
Busch said he learned quite a bit last year when he had to sit around for all those weeks, going through rehab and overcoming the odds of not only returning but winning what would be his first championship.
"Last year was a true testament of what people and faith have to do with it (coming back)," he said. "Being injured and going through the injury and then the physical therapy and then getting back to walking again and then getting in the race car… it was challenging. You kind of learn a lot about who you are physically and mentally.
"Going through the rehab and everything, it was hard. It was really, really hard. But about 10 days after the crash, I started getting vertical. It's amazing how much you lose in muscle mass or whatever. We just kept powering through. Kept doing everything as much as we could, as quickly as we could, and you know, were able to power through and get back."
Even before he was back in the car though, Busch was putting pressure on himself, not simply to drive, but to excel. Unlike the rest of his Sprint Cup competitors, he faced his own daunting expectations of not just winning but earning a title. And all with 11 fewer races under his belt than his competition.
"There was certainly a lot of pressure with having to start (his championship bid) in May," he said. "We either had to win a race or be in the top 30 in points to be eligible.
"Certainly there was a mental aspect to it - understanding that it takes a lot of physical strength and physical attributes in order to be a really good driver, but there is definitely a mental side too. And learning through the physical rehab what your body can do, or what you can push yourself to do, you also learn how to put that into your racing and how to put it on the track. I believe what I learned last year and how to take care of my equipment and just race and be there at the end really helped us."
Once Busch won at Sonoma, then tacked on a couple more wins, the ball just kept rolling for him and his team. A year later, he almost marvels at what he had to do to earn his first Sprint Cup Series title.
"Getting back in the race car, going through the second half of the season and winning some races and getting ourselves Chase eligible, then going through the Chase…" he said. "We barely made it through each round, but it doesn't matter if you're the first guy through or the last guy through, that's all that matters.
"And we made it to Homestead and won the race to win the championship and just really completed a storybook year," he continued. "I really don't know that you could have scripted it better than that."
Indeed. Not only did Busch win that elusive first crown, he and wife Samantha welcomed their first child, Brexton. And that happened while Busch was still recuperating.
"It was amazing to go through rehab and then be able to be healthy enough to walk into the hospital and be there for the birth of my son and to be with Samantha," he said. "It was pretty cool. The first couple of months it's like you don't understand him and he doesn't understand you and now it's really fun.
"He certainly has a cool personality and he laughs a lot. He has a good time and plays a lot. He's wide open - he's pure boy, that's for sure. They travel with me each and every weekend. It's nice to be able to have that so that we're always together."
Winning that championship after several years of hearing how much potential he had but not being able to pull it off, meant a lot to then 30-year old driver.
"I think the biggest thing from last year is that I got a little bit of relief," he said. "The pressure was off. I've won a championship. I've done what I wanted to do in this sport…to an extent. Of course, you always want to win more. You want more - one's not enough. We're never satisfied."