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18 Weeks After Scary Crash Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Back in Victory Lane at Sonoma

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Kyle Busch 2015 Toyota Save Mart 350 Sonoma Raceway

Kyle Busch 2015 Toyota Save Mart 350 Sonoma Raceway

18 weeks. That’s all it took for Kyle Busch to go from a broken leg on one side, broken foot on the other to be healed, healthy and sitting in Sprint Cup Victory Lane. Athletes come back from injury all the time; many wind up successful again. But even the most optimistic soul could never have imagined a journey back this quick after the vicious hit Busch took at Daytona.

Want proof? Check out Tony Stewart across the way, almost two years post-surgery for one broken leg. Look back at history, successful drivers like Bill Elliott and Kyle Petty going winless after returning the same year from significant leg injuries. Add in the reality of a road course, the most challenging track for a man needing to push the brake pedal and accelerator at least a dozen times per lap and the end result is nothing short of impressive.

“The brake pedal was really hard,” Busch said. “I’m a left-foot braker. You see over 1,000 pounds of brake pressure (at Sonoma). (The foot) got sore on Friday, about a 7 on a 1 to 10 pain scale. I went home and iced it and did everything that I normally do to try to cut the pain out, and it worked. I came back on Saturday and then it did it again. I did (the same routine Saturday) night as a safety thing to get myself prepared, no different than any other athlete would to prepare.”

The difference is most athletes will fizzle out. I can only give you my own experience, at roughly the same age as Kyle. I broke my ankle in three places, back in the fall of 2011 and had surgery. I was told I might never run again. At 18 weeks, I was just starting to run again and participate in athletic activity. The doctor then told me I was in the top five percent of people recovering with said injury. But putting pressure on it led to pain and was still exceedingly difficult; once again, that’s with one injured leg.

Kyle, on the other hand had two and he was back in a car racing in about three months. At four and a half, he’s earned victories in both NASCAR’s Cup and XFINITY Series. These days, we overuse superlatives in both writing and sports but this accomplishment is most deserving of one word.

Wow.

Through The Gears we go after the sport’s first road course race of the year...

FIRST GEAR: Can Busch Bounce Into The Chase?

Two weeks ago, Kyle Busch’s Chase chances looked bleak following a last-place finish at Michigan. One win later, while everyone is caught up in the hype of a good story let’s not let facts and math get in the way. Busch still needs to average a 14th-place finish over the final 10 races to make the cut. He still sits 136 points out of the top 30 with just 10 races remaining. That’s a tall order to overcome, far from “essentially clinched” as NASCAR PR said Sunday, raising a few eyebrows when Busch was introduced for his post-race press conference.

Here’s the deal; David Gilliland, Cole Whitt, and Justin Allgaier are tightly bunched at 29th, 30th and 31st in points. All three are paired with small-scale operations and will be put their best foot forward at Daytona Sunday night. Each one is capable of a top-10 finish there; perhaps, in Gilliland’s case it’ll even be an upset victory. Should the trio run well, posting good results while Busch wrecks, the No. 18 team could find themselves 170 points back with nine races left, all but out of it as far as the Chase is concerned. So while M&M’s, Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing have reason to be excited, there’s one big hump in particular to get over; Daytona, the site of that ugly February crash and a race that can deal you a bad hand in an instant.

“I was very grateful to NASCAR to give us the opportunity to be able to have something to chase after,” Busch said Sunday, thankful for his injury exemption that makes him postseason eligible. “But it’s certainly not going to be easy. We didn’t expect it to be… and it never is.”

Missing three months and then making it would be another miraculous accomplishment. We’ll see if Busch has the luck to get it done.

SECOND GEAR: Kurt Bullish on Championship Chances

Sitting right behind Kyle, just a second from Victory Lane himself was older brother Kurt. It was the first time the duo had finished 1-2 in a Cup race, a proud moment for the family and a sign of how quickly both have bounced back in 2015. For Kurt, whose domestic violence issues with ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll are well-documented he’s now 10th in points despite his three-race suspension to start the year.

“There’s so many things that have (clicked) into place for us to be successful,” said Busch, whose 708 laps led trail only teammate Kevin Harvick this season. “I love the camaraderie. I haven’t had this type of team chemistry since my championship year (2004).”

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It’s an intriguing statement, a sign of how much backing Busch has from co-owner Gene Haas, crew chief Tony Gibson (installed last fall) and his No. 41 crew. Remember, he was close to being fired in the wake of those criminal accusations and struggling co-owner Tony Stewart, never a fan of hiring Busch to begin with, has been noticeably quiet about the team’s success. It seems like Busch has been able to harness that “us against the world” mentality - one that may occasionally seep inside his own organization - into an extra burst of speed and effort each week with his small group.

Will that translate into NASCAR’s Final Four? Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. appear to be strong competition. But Busch, who has 12 top-15 finishes in 13 starts, hasn’t shown the inconsistency that’s dogged him in recent years. Gibson, a veteran head wrench, also won’t let the driver’s temper take charge in crunch time. The variables are here it seems for Busch to make a deep run in the Chase as long as off-track distractions are turned off for good.

THIRD GEAR: Expected Contenders Turn Into Expected Disappointments

Last year’s surprise road course winner, AJ Allmendinger, hoped for a repeat performance at Sonoma but it wasn’t to be. Early on, the pole-sitter drove a top-3 car only for mechanical problems, the type that have dogged JTG-Daugherty Racing all year, to crop up in the form of a faulty fuel cell.

“We had the fastest lap of the race,” said the driver after dropping to 37th. “I think we were going in the right direction. It just feels like a swift kick to everything right now.”

The ‘Dinger got back on the track to narrowly avoid his fourth DNF, a number which would have tied him with underfunded Landon Cassill for most in the series this season. When your team is showing that much trouble finishing in an era where parts simply just don’t break… it’s hard to view yourselves as a serious contender in any race, let alone one you think you should win.

Jeff Gordon, a California native whose career was celebrated this weekend, hoped to make his last Sonoma start memorable. Instead it was more of the same, struggles in a season that’s starting to slip away. Starting fifth, the No. 24 Chevrolet suffered through a pit road penalty for throwing equipment, and Gordon got so exasperated he made a lengthy, yellow-flag stop to change the setup over to match teammate Johnson. At that point, Gordon used a late-race strategy of staying out to grab back some of the track position he lost. But old tires, combined with an uneven final restart put the all-time leader in road course victories a distant 16th.

“Nothing’s going to take away from this weekend,” the veteran said afterwards. Unfortunately, he’s reaching the point where tributes and not title contention is all we’ll be looking forward to with the No. 24 team the rest of the year.

FOURTH GEAR: FOX Finishes Up

The FOX broadcast network ended their 15th year of live coverage Sunday, paving the way for NBC’s return to the sport July 4th weekend. It was also the grand finale of Larry McReynolds in the broadcast booth; he’ll be replaced next season by the retiring Jeff Gordon.

For full disclosure, I started my NASCAR career in television and still have my hands in there so it’s difficult for me to comment on the broadcasts with an unbiased take. However, this season it’s clear there was an uptick in frustration from fans who don’t like the way FOX covers the sport. Why? Ratings, after an increase during the first three weeks, declined with an unceremonious thud. The XFINITY Race at Chicagoland, postponed by rain, drew less than 400,000 viewers, an unheard-of number and Cup events were off by as much as 20 percent this spring.

It was a difficult year for FOX, losing beloved pit reporter Steve Byrnes to cancer and transitioning races to smaller cable network FOX Sports 1. I think the move to add Gordon will go well; it’s a fresh, TV-savvy face with a strong fanbase still interested in seeing him around. Still, the network faces a myriad of challenges moving forward. The Waltrip brothers, lightning rods for controversy, are under the microscope for different reasons. Darrell, turning 69 next season, will be 15 years removed from a Cup car and viewed by some as “out of touch” with the younger generation. (Example: “Boogity, boogity, boogity.” Need we say more?) Younger brother Michael, an in-race analyst, has come under fire for his ultimate bias in owning a Toyota team on the circuit. You could see the hesitation Sunday when Waltrip’s No. 55 car was at the epicenter of not one, but two, incidents; everyone in the booth seemed unable to handle the immediate possibility Waltrip’s driver, David Ragan, should be criticized.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is trying to cover a sport in a unique way when the teams and participants up front aren’t changing. When you’re interviewing Denny Hamlin for the 50th time, how do you switch it up? It’s a question that will need to be answered better if the owners, drivers, and competition remain stagnant heading into 2016.

OVERDRIVE

Jimmie Johnson, staying out while the most other lead-lap cars pitted late, saw a potential victory fizzle away. Sixth at the finish, you still have to give credit to crew chief Chad Knaus for taking chances, paired with a two-stop strategy that got his driver out front. That aggression will serve them well in NASCAR’s new Chase format… Casey Mears broke an axle to cause that final caution. Can anyone remember the last time an axle straight out broke in half in the middle of an event, and then went rolling across the track? I certainly can’t… Clint Bowyer recorded a season-best third place, the first top-5 finish all year for Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer, now one point behind Aric Almirola for the final Chase bid, is inching back toward the field. Almirola, who won at Daytona last July, must have a big weekend to stall his challenger’s momentum… Ragan, at the epicenter of two big wrecks, was critical of Truex for his driving. Their contact sent the No. 78 team out of the race but don’t expect retaliation from either; they’re both not the type.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.