The Crash That Changed Everything for Kyle Busch

daytona beach, fl   february 21  kyle busch, driver of the 54 monster energy toyota, erik jones, driver of the 20 gamestoprock candy toyota, brian scott, driver of the 2 shore lodge chevrolet, darrell wallace jr, driver of the 6 ford ecoboost ford, brendan gaughan, driver of the 62 south point chevrolet, and others are involved in a large on track incident during the nascar xfinity series alert today florida 300 at daytona international speedway on february 21, 2015 in daytona beach, florida  photo by brian lawdermilkgetty images
The Crash That Changed Everything for Kyle BuschBrian Lawdermilk - Getty Images

Kyle Busch knew it was going to hurt. He was careening toward a concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway at 176 mph, with only a few seconds and a strip of grass between himself and a head-on hit. Busch’s car, unable to fully buffer him from such an unnatural impact, would compress. His body would slam forward into his seat belts.

“As I'm sliding toward the inside wall, I'm like: ‘Holy shit, this is fast,’” he said. “I'm like: ‘You're gonna have to get off the brake pedal so you don't break your foot.’ So I picked a spot. I was like: ‘Okay, as soon as I hit the grass, I’ve gotta yank my legs back.’”

Busch hit the grass, then the wall—but he forgot to pull his legs back.

They both snapped.

Welcome to Split Second, where we ask racers to recall a split-second moment in their career that’s seared into their brain—the perfect pass, the slow-motion movie of their own worst crash, the near-miss that scared them straight, or anything else—and what gives the memory staying power. In this edition, we spoke to Kyle Busch about the crash that started the run to his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2015.

When you ask Busch about the wreck, he’ll tell you: “I can remember every waking detail.” It was the day before the 2015 Daytona 500, and Busch—who usually drives in the NASCAR Cup Series—was racing for fun in the lower-tier Xfinity Series. He entered that race because he’d never won it, and with nine laps to go, he was near the front.

“I was behind my teammate Erik Jones,” Busch said. “We were on the inside lane, but we weren’t really going anywhere. I felt stuck, so I was waiting for a hole to open. We were coming into the tri-oval, and I was like: ‘Okay, I see the hole.’”

Daytona is a 2.5-mile D-shaped oval known for pack racing and large wrecks. Often, the only way to win is by drafting with cars around you.

There were three cars ahead of Busch on the inside: Brad Keselowski, Ryan Reed, and Jones. The hole was through the middle, and Busch knew if he could get a drafting run started, he could slide into it.

daytona beach, fl   february 21  kyle busch, driver of the 54 monster energy toyota, erik jones, driver of the 20 gamestoprock candy toyota, brian scott, driver of the 2 shore lodge chevrolet, and others are involved in a large on track incident during the nascar xfinity series alert today florida 300 at daytona international speedway on february 21, 2015 in daytona beach, florida  photo by sean gardnernascar via getty images
Busch’s #54 Camry heads left, straight at the wall.Sean Gardner - Getty Images

“Just past the start-finish line, I got to [Jones’] rear bumper and started pushing,” Busch said. “Normally, you would wait until you get flat off of the tri-oval and you're not turning, but I wanted to start it earlier.

“I started it too soon. I got him loose, and he started the spin toward the infield. I checked up and got off of him, then he overcorrected. It swung him back to the right.”

Busch slid up the track to miss Jones, but the disturbed air from other cars spun him “like a top.” He had about five seconds before he’d hit the wall, and he needed to act.

“As I was sliding, I'm like: ‘Okay, I need the car to rudder,’” Busch said. “‘I don't need to go head-on into the wall. If I can get the thing to spin the left-rear back out the other way, I can maybe flat-side the wall.’”

The car wouldn’t do anything, Busch said. He was along for the ride, so he locked down the brakes and braced for impact.

Busch closed his eyes and hit nose-first at 90 mph. The car bounced back violently, and when Busch came to a stop, there was still a thick cloud of smoke along the path of the wreck.

Above: The wreck.

“When I hit that wall, my foot was still on the brake trying to stop,” Busch said. “It broke my foot, which I really didn't feel. What I did feel was: The engine compartment collapsed so far that it hit the gas pedal, and the gas pedal came back. It snapped my right leg instantly.”

Everything compressed, including Busch. It felt like someone crushing his chest, pushing all the air out. He let out an involuntary “huuuuuuuaaaaa” before regaining a sense of his surroundings.

“In that moment, you're like: ‘Okay, am I breathing? Am I alive? Am I awake?’” Busch said. “Those are the questions you're asking yourself—you know, if you're there.

“But everything was fine. I didn't have a concussion. I didn't hit my head. My neck wasn't even sore. I caught my breath back pretty normally, and I'm like: ‘Okay, I'm alive. My eyes are open.’”

daytona beach, fl   february 21  the car of kyle busch, driver of the 54 monster energy toyota, is seen against a wall after crashing during the nascar xfinity series alert today florida 300 at daytona international speedway on february 21, 2015 in daytona beach, florida busch was transported to a local hospital with a lower body injury and will not race in the nascar sprint cup series daytona 500 tomorrow  photo by brian lawdermilkgetty images
The aftermath.Brian Lawdermilk - Getty Images

The car was on fire. It was small—just some excess fuel in the cowl area—but Busch wanted to be safe. He dropped his window net, unbuckled, and positioned his body to get out of the car through the window.

“My right leg was just flopping around,” Busch said. “I was like: ‘Oh my God. My right leg’s broke. Alright. I still gotta get outta the car.’ I started to push with my left foot, and it was instantly a shooting pain.”

Busch pulled as hard as he could with his arms while safety workers and emergency vehicles surrounded him. He got out and laid on the ground, his crushed car nearby covered in white spray from a fire extinguisher.

“As I go to the hospital and have surgery, the first thing was like: ‘Man, I don't think I'm gonna be able to race tomorrow,’” Busch laughed. “Everybody’s like: ‘Yeah, tomorrow's definitely out. Probably the next one, too.’”

daytona beach, fl   february 22  a view of a newly installed tire barrier at the location of a crash in last nights nascar xfinity series alert today florida 300 that resulted in injuries to driver kyle busch at daytona international speedway on february 22, 2015 in daytona beach, florida busch will miss the nascar sprint cup series 57th annual daytona 500 after breaking his right leg and left foot in the incident  photo by robert reinersgetty images
A tire barrier was added to the wall Busch hit before the Daytona 500 the next day.Robert Reiners - Getty Images

After surgery, Busch needed physical therapy. Multiple drivers subbed for him in the Cup Series, while he watched on television and thought: “If I don't ever go back, will I be okay? What happens next? What do I do?” He wondered if he’d just race in lower levels of NASCAR, or if he’d stick to being a team owner.

“After about week five, it was like: ‘This is killing me. I gotta get back,’” Busch said. “You miss being with your crew, working in the elements, and all that sort of stuff. That gave me the passion to not just call it a day.”

Busch returned to the Cup Series for the All-Star Race in May, less than three months later. In the first four points races after, he finished in the top 10 once and wrecked out twice. He felt like he was trying to force something that wasn’t there.

“We were fast,” Busch said. “But I was trying to come back and, like, win right away and make this hero moment—make it seem like a movie. And I'm like: ‘Bro, this is real life. Calm down. Just go finish a damn race right now.’”

The Cup Series had an off-week in June, and Busch used it as a reset. He needed to stop forcing it and let races come to him.

“That was the mindset going into Sonoma, my fifth race back,” Busch said. “Everything fell into place, and I was able to win.”

june 28, 2015 sonoma raceway president, steve page congratulates kyle busch in the winnwers circle after the toyota savemart 350 nascar sprint cup series race held june 26 28, 2015 at sonoma raceway, ca driver kyle busch 18 won the 110 lap race photo by allan hamiltonicon sportswirecorbisicon sportswire via getty images
Busch in victory lane at Sonoma in 2015.Icon Sports Wire

A year before, in 2014, NASCAR revamped its championship format to include a knockout-style postseason now called the “playoffs.” To qualify, a driver just needs to win a race during the regular season and finish in the top 30 in points. Throughout the playoffs, championship points get reset based on performance in previous rounds.

Busch won three races in a row shortly after Sonoma, then crawled back into the top 30. After missing a third of the season, he was suddenly a playoff driver.

“We were 26th or 27th in points,” Busch said. “Then when they did the playoff reset, I was tied at the top. It was like: ‘Hell yeah. We just went from zero to hero. This is perfect.’”

Busch advanced through all the rounds of the playoffs and qualified for the final four. Once there, points no longer count—the four drivers left simply go into the season finale in November, and the highest finisher in the race wins the title.

The 2015 finale was at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Busch hadn’t been to victory lane since his fourth win of the year in July, but that didn’t matter. He was just happy to be there.

homestead, fl   november 22  brad keselowski, driver of the 2 miller lite ford, leads kyle busch, driver of the 18 mms crispy toyota, and others during the nascar sprint cup series ford ecoboost 400 at homestead miami speedway on november 22, 2015 in homestead, florida  photo by mike ehrmanngetty images
Busch running second at the Homestead finale in 2015.Mike Ehrmann - Getty Images

“The whole week going into Homestead, I treated it as like: ‘People think I don't deserve to be here,’” Busch said. “‘So you know what? Hell, I'm playing with house money. We might as well have fun.’”

At Homestead, the championship drivers—Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick—led for much of the day. Busch thought: “Man, this ain’t gonna be easy.” But as the race wound down, he started trading the lead with Keselowski—a non-playoff driver.

“I was like: ‘Hot damn, we might actually have something here,’” he said.

Busch knew he had to be ready for late-race caution to bunch up the field. With 11 laps to go, it happened.

“I was like: ‘Haha, here it is!’” Busch said. “We came down pit road, the guys executed a damn good stop, and we came off in front of the rest of the playoff cars. We restarted second to Brad Keselowski, and on the restart, the car flew. We got the lead.”

Busch drove away, while Harvick slotted in behind him. He never caught up.

“Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races of the season with a broken leg and a broken foot,” lead commentator Rick Allen said on the last lap. “His closest competitor is just a dot in the rearview mirror. No one has battled through as much pain or had as much perseverance as 30-year-old Kyle Busch—and tonight, he earns his first Cup title.”

Busch came off of turn four at Homestead with a 1.6-second lead on Harvick. After a hellish wreck, two snapped limbs, and the question of whether he’d come back at all, he was a champion. He’d do it again a few years later in 2019—this time, without the drama to start the year.

“You know, you see that checkered flag and a tear rolls out down your cheek,” Busch recalled. “Just thinking back, like: ‘Damn, I've been here for 10 years and have been working so hard for this moment.’ It felt amazing.”

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