The Year of Kyle

How becoming a dad helped Kyle Busch finally become a champion

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The final laps of the final race, Kyle Busch sings a silly song. It is a song he did not know last year, a song he had no reason to know. He sings the song and sings it again and sings it again as his car goes in and out of the turns and rushes down the straightaways. This is it. He’s laps away from the championship, the one that he was always supposed to win, the one that will complete the craziest year…

No. He doesn’t want to think about any of that. He has to keep his mind clear. The job isn’t finished. He must snuff out all of the overwhelming emotions that are welling up inside…

So he focuses all his concentration on that silly, beautiful song that now marks his life.

* * *

The first word is talent. It’s the first word Jeff Gordon uses, the first word Jimmie Johnson uses, the first word Dale Earnhardt Jr. uses. It’s the first word you hear from Joe Gibbs, the first word you hear from Rick Hendrick, the first word spoken by Tom Higgins, the grand old sportswriter of NASCAR who has seen ‘em all come and go.

They are talking about Kyle Busch.

And with Kyle Busch, the first word is always talent.

What kind of talent are we talking about? Crazy talent. Jedi talent. The garages at a NASCAR track overflow with daredevils and Top Gun pilots and some of the craziest sons of guns you ever saw. There is no shortage of ego. But even in the garages, they talk about Kyle Busch in a different tone. He can drive any kind of vehicle to the limit. He can race day after day after day and never get tired. He carries an extra 15 horsepower in his gut.

“With Kyle,” Dale Jr. says, “the first thing you think about is talent.”

Of course, that’s a vague word: Talent. What does it mean anyway? In football you might be talking about speed or strength. In baseball, you might mean a players arm or power. In basketball, it could be agility or leaping ability. But what is talent for a race car driver? What does it look like?

“When I’m talking about talent,” Jeff Gordon says, “I’m looking at someone who pushes the car to the edge without going over.” This makes sense but, again, what does that mean? Where does it come from? Vision? Fearlesness? Hunger? Hand-eye coordination?

Jimmie Johnson takes a crack at it: “Kyle does a phenomenal job of getting right on the edge, finding every extra hundredth of a second of lap in the car. That’s where you see the talent. He just … he just drives the car fast.”

He just drives fast. Again, that’s kind of vague.

“I don’t know,” his crew chief Adam Stevens says. “Look: I know that I can throw a football. I can throw the heck out of a football. But I’m not going to go quarterback a high school team, much less an NFL team. People drive a car every day, they think, ‘What’s so hard about driving a car?’ They don’t understand that these guys are every bit as elite as any professional athlete.

“So, you ask: ‘What makes him great?’ I don’t know. I don’t even really care. That’s just the way it is. You can’t quantify what makes Tom Brady as good as Tom Brady is.”

“Well,” I say, “actually, if you’re talking about Tom Brady, you would point out his amazing ability to make quick decisions, his ability to throw accurately under pressure, his sense of where everyone is on the field, his incredible level of preparation…”

“Right,” Stevens says, smiling. “Kyle has all that too.”

So, OK, he just drives fast, and he always has from the moment his father, Tom, put him in a race car. He won XFINITY race and truck races and dirt track races. He won his first NASCAR pole at 19 years old. He won his first race at 20 years old. When he was 23 years old, he won eight Sprint Cup races.

“When he wins that first championship,” six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said years ago, “Just watch out.”

Well, for all that talent, he didn’t win a Cup championship, not for a decade, he didn’t win that championship. He won a lot of races — more over the decade than anyone but Johnson — but something was stopping him from winning a title. What was it? Hard to say.

“He let stuff bother him too much,” team owner and three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Gibbs says. “He was just so hard on himself. I think he always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

“He made mistakes,” Gordon says. “He was my teammate, I know what those mistakes were. I’d say it was over-exuberance.”

And what does Kyle Busch think?

“I don’t buy any of it,” he says. “I just do my deal.”

He smiles and shrugs.

“I mean, I do think it was pretty remarkable the way things went down. Obviously. It was a pretty wild year.”

* * *

The final laps of the final race, Kyle Busch sings a silly song, and he realizes that he doesn’t even know the words. Who knows all the words to that song? Well, the words aren’t the point. The feeling is what matters.

This is Homestead, the last race of the NASCAR season, and Kyle Busch is so close to winning his first title and … who can even believe it? He was hurt so bad in a wreck, there was some question if he would EVER fully come back, much less come back this year. He rehabilitated like a madman, partly for racing, but mostly so that he could be standing by his wife in the biggest moment of their lives. He knew that someday he would be here, on the brink of a championship, but he never thought it would be now.

And there are those emotions. He sings the silly song.

Who’s that swinging up and down?

Larry!

Join him as he has some fun!

Larry!

Yes, he keeps singing even as the roaring engines drown out his voice, and Kevin Harvick lurks out there, and Adam Stevens talks to him on the radio, and the Miami crowd screams in anticipation and this crazy dream becomes more and more real.

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So, let’s offer the fairy tale version of Kyle Busch’s 2015 year. You should know that Kyle himself loathes this version, believes it oversimplifies everything, but he also knows it’s the story that people like telling.

So here goes:

When the year began, as mentioned, Kyle Busch was this talented (so talented) race car driver who had never won a championship. Race fans had mixed feelings about the guy. Sure, he had his fans, those people who wore M&M’s jackets and called him Rowdy (after Rowdy Burns, the hard-nosed character from “Days of Thunder”).

But there were always some who disliked him — Kyle Busch won a few of those “least popular driver” polls through the years. He had gotten into a few fights through the years. He’d said some stuff that offended others through the years. Well, hey, he was a kid.

The thing that most riled him, though, was this notion that he was an underachiever, that there was something insubstantial about him. But it was true that he had never won a championship, and he had never won any of NASCAR’s biggest races. He saw 2015 as the year all that would change.

Then, on February 21, during the XFINITY race at Daytona, he lost control of his car, slid into the wall and felt both of his legs get crushed. Adrenaline overwhelmed some of the pain, but not all of it, not close to all of it. He was rushed to the hospital. His wife, Samantha, 22 weeks pregnant with their first child, trembled and waited for some word, any word. Kyle pleaded with someone to tell her that he was going to be all right.

All the while, Kyle Busch wondered if he would ever race again.

In time, he found out: His right knee and left foot were shattered. It was bad, but not as bad as he feared. Doctors told him it would take six months to come back. He vowed to return in three. Doctors told him he physically might never be the same driver again. He vowed to return better than ever. They told him he would not be able to walk at all for four months. He vowed to be standing up three months later, when Samantha gave birth.

“I remember this very clearly,” Joe Gibbs says. “I walked into the hospital room and Kyle says to me, ‘Look what I can do.’ And he wiggles his toe. And I say to him, “Great. Are you SUPPOSED to be doing that?’ But that’s how driven he was.”

As the fairy tale version goes, he found something in himself during the rehabilitation. He did stand with his wife as their son Brexton was born. He did come back to racing and dominate, winning four out of five races at one point. He did push his way through the Chase, NASCAR’s playoff, until he was one of the final four, and then in the last race he pushed through, dominated the last part of the race and pulled away for the victory and the championship.

“Most miraculous thing I’ve ever seen,” Gibbs told him, and this is the same Joe Gibbs who coached a Mark Rypien-quartebacked team to Super Bowl win.

MORE: Busch reflects on title | Family the key | PHOTOS: Championship media tour

So that’s the fairy tale version, and as Kyle Busch will tell you, it’s partially true, maybe even mostly true, but it misses all the important parts of real life. It misses the pain and drudgery and boredom and blackness of his rehabilitation. It misses the crummy feeling he had when going to his weekly race meetings knowing he couldn’t get into the race car. It misses the fact that he turned 30 years old this year, and that means he’s not the same kid that people remembered from a few years ago.

Mostly, it misses the wonder of being there when Brexton was born. This was the real miracle. “We tried to have Brexton for a long time,” Samantha says with tears in her eyes. “And it didn’t happen. We prayed hard. We had to go through (in vitro fertilization), and I’m not saying that we appreciate him more, but when you have to work at something so hard, it’s not just given to you, it’s like … it’s almost indescribable.”

Their journey inspired Kyle and Samantha to start the “Bundle of Joy Fund” to help families struggling with infertility.

“There was no way I was going to be sitting when Brexton was born,” Kyle Busch says. “No way. I was going to be standing there. That was the first thing I told Samantha when I saw her after the accident. First thing I said: ‘I’ll be standing right next to you.’ … I wasn’t walking great, but I was upright.'”

“He did it,” Samantha says.

“We did it,” Kyle says.

When people tell the fairy tale version of the story, the focus is on how Kyle Busch the race car driver changed, how he learned to appreciate the sport more, how he harnessed his great talent. But for Kyle Busch, it was never about that. He’s not different now, not exactly. He’s just …

“I really feel like the last two or three years, I’ve matured,” he says. “But that’s natural. I’m not a kid anymore. I was just a kid when I started racing and I did a lot of stupid kid stuff like everybody else. I’m 30 now, I mean, there’s just going to be some natural maturing. People want to make it out like this one thing happened, and everything changed. I guess it’s a better story that way. But that’s not how it really is.”

He smiles and shrugs.

“I mean, I’m a dad now,” he says.

* * *

The final laps of the final race, Kyle Busch sings a silly song, the theme song to “Vocabularry,” a baby show about a parrot who says words. This is the entire thesis of the show:  A parrot says words. A “Vocabularry” plot might be Larry seeing an apple and then saying “apple.” As George from “Seinfeld” might say: “That’s a show.”

Brexton loves “Vocabularry,” of course, because it is bright and colorful and has a theme song that gets into every parent’s brain and just stays there. Every parent from every generation knows that song — “Mashed Potato,” from The Wiggles, the theme to “Dora the Explorer,” Mister Rogers singing “It’s a good feeling” — and there is no way to escape it.

Then, Kyle Busch doesn’t want to escape it. He sings it instead.

* * *

One week after Kyle Busch won his championship at Homestead, he gets up at 2 a.m. to feed Brexton. Then, he cannot go back to sleep. It has been a whirlwind week. Stephen Colbert. ESPN SportsCenter. Dozens of interviews. He even went to a New England Patriots game and sat in the box of owner Robert Kraft. He is exhausted. And, yet, he cannot sleep.

So he goes into the other room and gets the tape of the last race. He considers waking up Samantha to see if she wants to watch with him, but instead he lets her sleep. And he begins to watch.

“That was really cool,” he would say later.

“What was cool about it?”

“Well, it was the first time I got to see the race, you know? It’s like, seeing the race, I could think about what really happened.”

To win a championship, the great Richard Petty once said, you need three things. You need talent, of course. You need a fast car. And third, you need to keep your eyes open.

Kyle Busch always had talent, of course.

The second part, the fast car, well, a lot of that came from rookie crew chief Adam Stevens. The two worked together in the XFINITY Series, and Joe Gibbs just had this hunch that they would mesh well. Stevens understands something subtle but hugely important: When Richard Petty or anyone else in racing taks about “a fast car,” they are not talking about that in a universal way. Adam Stevens and the crew were not building fast cars. They were building cars that Kyle Busch could drive fast. Big difference.

“It really doesn’t matter how much potential is there,” Stevens says. “The car is only going to go as fast as Kyle can make it go. It isn’t about what the car can do. It’s all about Kyle’s PERCEPTION of what he’s got.

“And that’s why we’re lucky to be working with Kyle, because, better than anybody, he sees each practice lap, and he sees each practice session, and he sees each race lap, and he sees each race, and he can see the season as a whole. He can see all of that, and that’s unique. A lot of guys can barely see over the hood pins. Kyle sees possibilities.”

And, then there’s that third part of Petty’s Pyramid of Success, the part about keeping your eyes open.

“You know,” Jimmie Johnson says, “I never had that great talent Kyle has. It took me years to learn how to ride that edge — I was always a slow learner. I had the other side, though, the mental side and being able to deal with pressure and frustration, stress. Managing all that emotional side, that was my strength.

“I think that Kyle figured some of that out this year. Maybe it was coming back from the injury. Maybe it was becoming a dad. Maybe it was just him growing up a little bit like we all do. But I think you throw the talent in there with that ability to deal with difficulties, it’s pretty unbeatable.”

Kyle Busch admits he sometimes let his frustration overwhelm him. He sometimes grew impatient because things weren’t coming easier. Even now, he can be extremely hard on himself. When I ask him how proud he is of this incredible year, he says, “I’m proud, of course, but this is what I’m supposed to do. This is not a guy who’s got less talent and maybe is not expected to win a championship — then they can get excited and say, ‘Wow! We got it! We accomplished that when no one thought we could.’ I was always supposed to win a championship. I was always supposed to be in this position.”

Then he talks about wanting to win ten of these championships in a row.

But let’s go back to that moment when he watches the race. He watches himself stay patient in the early part of the race, when it seemed like Kevin Harvick might have the best car and might pull away from everyone. He watches himself turn it on in the middle of the race, assert himself. He watches, happily, in the final laps, when Brad Keselowski takes the bottom position on the final restart. (“I don’t know why he did that but I’m sure glad he did,” he says.) and then watches himself pull away. He could close his eyes and see all that open road in front of him.

And, in his head, he hears himself singing that silly song. What would the younger Kyle Busch have thought about a driver singing a theme song from a baby show in the final laps of a NASCAR Championship?

Vocabularry! Vocabularry!

Say the words out loud!

Vocabularry! Vocabularry!

That’s what it’s about!

There’s no telling what the young Kyle Busch would have thought, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Busch isn’t that kid anymore. “Hey,” the Sprint Cup Champion says, “I like that song.”