Hey, did you hear Kyle Busch is back?
Because if you were watching Saturday night’s race (with the sound off, mind you), you may not have noticed anything different.
If you’ve been living under a rock, Busch has been MIA from the Sprint Cup Series for a while — since the beginning of the season actually. After sustaining injuries in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona (just a day before the season-opening Daytona 500 in the Sprint Cup Series), Busch missed the first 11 races of the season. His No. 54 car struck an unprotected part of the inside wall at Daytona, suffering a left mid-foot fracture and a compound fracture of the right lower leg. Busch was out indefinitely, with no timetable given for his return.
Finally, the Tuesday before the Sprint All-Star Race last week, Busch announced his return. A day later, NASCAR announced they would grant Busch a Chase waiver, stating that if he could win a race AND make his way into the top 30 in points, he would be allotted a Chase berth. The rule waived stated that a driver must compete in (or attempt to compete in) every points race to be eligible for the Chase, something Busch was obviously not able to do.
But, first things first, Busch had to get back inside a racecar. Eligibility rules for the All-Star Race only require that a driver has won a race in the year prior (2014) or in the races leading up to the event in the current year (2015). Since Busch went to victory lane last season, he was eligible to compete in the race, with the 110-lap event serving as a much shorter precursor to next weekend’s 600-mile race.
The driver of the No. 18 looked like he never missed a beat. He was fastest in final practice and finished sixth in his first race back, showing speed about equal to that of his teammates. Denny Hamlin won the race — giving Joe Gibbs Racing their first ever All-Star Race win — while Matt Kenseth finished just ahead of Busch in fifth. The fourth JGR car, Carl Edwards, finished 17th following a pit-road speeding penalty prior to the fifth and final segment.
So how was Busch feeling after his first full race back in the car?
“I’ll be sore for a couple days, just muscles that haven’t been woken up like this in a little while,” said Busch post-race. “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 racecar 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. I never was out of breath at all during the race or through the runs or anything like that. That was a good thing. I was not worried about it. But, you know, when you’re working out and doing things, doing therapy and whatnot, the therapist tells you, Your cardio is really bad, it’s definitely gotten better over the last month, but wasn’t sure how great it was going to be yet. It felt really good. From here on out, there’s only going to be an upward swing, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Now, again, this was only a 110-lap race, a short drive in comparison to the 400-lap event that will occur next Sunday night. The longest race of the season will be the true test of Busch’s stamina, something that even he admitted after the All-Star Race Saturday night.
“As far as endurance goes for next week, I felt like I got out of the car after a hundred laps and I’m fine,” he said. “Am I going to die out after 200 or 300? I don’t know. The plan is to go the full distance. We’ll just hope that the rest of these guys run about 50% for the first 200, I can keep up. Maybe at the end we’ll all go after it. But I doubt that will happen.”
With that said, though, Busch’s focus after the race seemed much more on the competitive side rather than the “just take it easy” strategy. He had much more to say about his car handling, what they learned in the race they can apply to next week, and pitstops than anything related to the injury or his comeback. In fact, Busch really only had anything to say about the injury when asked, and, while grateful to be back in a racecar, seemed only interested in looking forward to the next race and getting back to Victory Lane.
Which, really, should be a warning to the competition. JGR, while not the strongest team all year, has now made it to victory lane three times this season (unofficially, as the All-Star Race is a non-points event), which completely leaves the door open to for Busch to follow suit. And considering his focus, drive, and ability doesn’t seem to have changed a bit since we last saw him behind the wheel of a car in February, it may very well be as though that awful crash in Daytona never even happened from here on out.