Potential becomes reality

Rowdy Burns: “The Doc here says I need minor brain surgery.

Doctor: “Well, that’s not exactly how I put it.

Cole Trickle: “Well listen Doc, any surgery on his brain is bound to be minor.

— “Days of Thunder”

* * *

CHARLOTTE — Kyle Busch groans as he watches Samantha flip through her phone to find a certain photograph. “You always take the longest way to get to the photo,” he says, and as she nods in agreement he reaches for his own phone, swipes quickly, and finds what he wants. Kyle turns the phone around to show a photograph of Brexton, their son, 3 months old, his cheeks puffed out like he’s ready to start playing trombone, but his eyes absolutely locked in. It’s astonishing: He looks utterly fascinated.

“That,” Kyle says, “was Brexton at the end of the Brickyard 400.”

He smiles. There’s a great story about basketball star Steph Curry; his mother Sonya took Steph to one of his father’s NBA games when he was just 2 weeks old. And, he was fascinated by everything around him. He didn’t cry once. It was as if he was saying, “Oh, so this is my future.”

Yeah, that’s how it is with Brexton, too. He was on a plane for the race in Dover when he was 10 days old. Ever since then, he has seemed happiest when watching races. Once, when he was crying in his car seat, Kyle started making noises like they were on a road course, and Brexton immediately stopped crying and started smiling.

“I’m like, ‘Uh-oh, here we go,” Samantha says, “We have another one.’”

“I turn on ‘Looney Tunes’ or something, and he’s like ‘Nah,’” Kyle says. “He doesn’t care. You turn on the race, though and it’s like … he just sits there. He just stares at it.”

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“Kyle’s dad already sees a future race car driver,” Samantha says.

Kyle looks over at her and nods.

“If there’s one thing Tom Busch knows,” Kyle says quietly, “it’s how to spot a race car driver.”

* * *

Ever since he was a kid, Kyle Busch saw himself as Rowdy Burns. You would think that a kid might be drawn to the other guy in “Days of Thunder,” Cole Trickle, played by Tom Cruise, loved by Nicole Kidman, guided by Robert Duvall. Cole Trickle (not to spoil anything for you) is the one who wins Daytona, the one who gets the girl, the one who pulls off the miracle racing maneuver at the end.

“There’s nothing you can’t do in a race car,” the Robert Duvall character tells Cole.

But, no, Kyle Busch was drawn to the other guy, Rowdy Burns, the bad-ass superstar driver who lives to race and races to live and bursts a blood vessel in his brain after an accident. Rowdy, played by Michael Rooker, isn’t exactly a major character in the movie, but we do find out that he would spin you out as soon as look at you. He would smash into your rear bumper just to let you know he was there. Rowdy was dangerous. And Kyle Busch thought “dangerous” was something to be.

* * *

He began racing cars before he could reach the gas pedal. That’s how it was in Tom Busch’s home in Las Vegas. Kyle’s older brother, Kurt, was already an up-and-coming NASCAR star (and already the sport’s bad-boy-in-training) when Kyle was 14 years old and still splitting time between racing and another childhood love, baseball.

“I wasn’t very good in the beginning,” Kyle says of baseball. “But then I got to be pretty good. I was trying to have both careers, you know, go parallel. … My Dad was like, ‘All right, it’s either going to be that or it’s going to be this. What do you want?’ That was the end of baseball.”

Kyle was, like his brother, a prodigy behind the wheel. If anything, he was even more gifted than Kurt. Kyle was racing NASCAR trucks before he turned 18. He was 19 when he won his first Cup pole. He was 20 when he won his first Cup race. Both were records until the sport’s next phenom, Joey Logano, came along. Logano won his first race when he was just 19, breaking Busch’s record.

MORE: Busch wins Food City 300 at Bristol

“Logano’s win doesn’t count,” Kyle says now. See, Kyle Busch’s victory was a full-fledged 500 mile race in Fontana — he had to beat Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart to the finish. Logano’s record-breaking Cup win was a rain-shortened race in New Hampshire. “I kid him about it all the time,” Kyle says. “I tell him, ‘It doesn’t count.’ He didn’t have to beat anyone to the finish line.”

He is joking. He is also not joking. Kyle Busch has never hesitated to say what’s on his mind, which has not always made him friends. But, well, as far as that goes, he didn’t have much of a chance to make friends anyway. People have been booing him since he was 18 years old. He remembers the first time – he was in an ARCA series race out west, and he qualified third. All around he heard people jeering and heckling him.

“I was like, ‘What the hell?’” he says. “What did I do?”

But he knew: They weren’t booing him. They were booing Kurt, who by then had established himself as one of the sport’s most talented and volatile and controversial drivers. Samantha says it’s like being in the same school as your older brother or sister and the teacher on the first day says, “Oh, I had your sibling in my class. You have quite an uphill climb ahead of you.”

“Yeah, Kurt was there, not making so many friends,” Kyle says. “I came in, and I was already guilty by association.”

He was guilty by association … but he was also one of the most anticipated young drivers in the history of NASCAR. “Your brother tells me all the time, ‘You think I’m good, wait until you see my younger brother,’” the late and great Buddy Baker said to Kyle when he was just 16. “I guess you’re pretty good, son.”

He was good. Everyone saw it. Kyle had so much raw talent in a race car – his ability to control any kind of car, to see openings, to take it to the edge and keep it there – that his future seemed limitless. Kingmaker Rick Hendrick himself put Kyle Busch in Terry Labonte’s old car when he was 19. Tom Higgins, one of the legendary writers of the sport, remembers some of the older drivers seeing Kyle Busch drive and saying, “Whoa, he drives like Junior Johnson.”

“Kyle’s talent in a race car is so obvious that I think he’s always had a lot to live up to,” says Joe Gibbs, Busch’s car owner and three-time Super Bowl winning coach. “I think at times that has been hard on him. He is very hard on himself.”

His first decade in Cup racing was an odd medley of overwhelming success, missed chances and some dark storms. From his first year in 2005 through 2015, he has won 33 Cup races; only Jimmie Johnson has more. He and Johnson are the only drivers to win a race in all 11 of those seasons. He has earned more than $72 million in his career.

But Busch’s talent goes beyond his Cup performances. He is an obsessive racer. While other drivers have hobbies — they golf, they work out, they do triathlons — Kyle Busch races. In his career, he has won 73 times on what is now called the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He has won 44 NASCAR truck races. He will go anywhere to race at any time — he has twice won the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, he has won the Prelude to the Dream dirt track race, he has won the Howie Lettow Memorial 150 in Milwaukee.

“I’ve seen him get as excited racing in front of 3,000 people on a dirt track as he does racing at Daytona,” Gibbs says. “It’s amazing. He will say, ‘It’s going to be a packed house tonight.’”

If you went around the garages and asked everyone to name the best pure stock car driver on earth, Kyle Busch probably would get more votes than anybody.

On the other hand, there was always something that seemed to be holding him back too. He never won a Cup Championship (the best he finished was fourth in 2013). Before this year, he had not won any of NASCAR’s three biggest races  — the Daytona 500, the Coca Cola 600 or the Brickyard.

And then there were those storms. He was caught doing 128-mph in a 45-mph zone. He got into numerous on-track battles with people. He once left the track after an accident without telling his crew chief or team; Dale Earnhardt Jr. was called in to finish the race. He got into an accident with his brother, and supposedly the two wouldn’t talk for weeks afterward. He got into a bumping match with Carl Edwards. In probably the most publicized storm, he forced Ron Hornaday Jr. into a wall during a truck race, ending Hornaday’s championship hopes.

“That is probably the only one that I look back on and I’m like, ‘Man, I wish that didn’t happen,’” he says. “There’s no excuses. It was just frustration from that entire year. … I felt like I was getting taken advantage of every single week, and I just blew up. Unfortunately, Hornaday was the one that got the brunt of it.”

And so, when the 2014 season ended, Kyle Busch was consistently voted as NASCAR’s least popular driver. And it seemed that Kyle Busch had fulfilled his lifelong dream. He really was Rowdy Burns. He raced fearlessly and all the time. He won a lot. He didn’t care what people thought about him. And, well, yeah, he was not the star of the movie.

* * *

This year, on Feb. 21 at Daytona, in the season’s first Xfinity race, Kyle Busch tried to help his teammate Erik Jones push through traffic. And he did something he almost never does: He miscalculated the aerodynamics. Jones began to spin out and, in the unsettled air, Busch lost control. His car went sliding left, he couldn’t slow down, and his car hit the wall at 90 mph. Busch would remember having a clear thought just before impact: “This is going to hurt.”

He had never been hurt in a race car. He’d been in some spectacular wrecks, but he’d never gotten hurt. That was the overpowering thought in Samantha’s mind as she watched the accident. Samantha and Kyle began dating in 2008 – and at that point she knew almost nothing about racing. The only race car driver she knew by name was Jeff Gordon.

“Tell him why,” Kyle says.

“The Nelly song,” Samantha says.

Yes, the Nelly song, “E.I.,” has the lyric: “I drive fast, call me Jeff Gordon/In a black SS with a navigation.” Nelly provided the extent of Samantha’s NASCAR knowledge before she met Kyle Bush. And so, while she certainly knew about the danger in abstract, she did not live through the sometimes tragic history of stock car racing. And she did not think much about it.

“Any wife who goes in an interview, the first question always is, ‘Are you scared that they race?’” Samantha says. “It’s always the first question. … But the way I knew racing, nobody really got hurt. You would see accidents, and then it’s like you just walked away. People would ask ‘Are you scared?’ and I would think, ‘Yeah, a little, but not really. Nobody got hurt.’”

When Kyle hit the wall, Samantha was 26 weeks pregnant. She saw the accident, then listened to the radio for the OK. She and Kyle had a little rule: Whenever he wrecked, he would get on the radio and say, “I’m OK.” And this time, he didn’t.

“When it first happened, yeah, I certainly thought it was a career-over type of thing,” Kyle says.”“I thought that because it was both the (right) leg AND the (left) foot that were broken. I was thinking, ‘This really might be it.’ You think the worst thoughts at first, I guess.”

Samantha raced to the hospital and, for a long time, nobody would tell her what was going on, and she had even worse thoughts about brain injuries and so on. Kyle kept begging the nurses to just bring her in so she could see that his life wasn’t in danger. That he would be fine. When she finally was brought in and saw his life wasn’t in danger, she did not see him as being “fine.” He was hooked up to several IVs. The bone in his right leg was sticking out.

“He asked me if the baby was OK,” Samantha says, shaking her head. “It was surreal, like it isn’t really happening. …  I don’t think it felt real until a couple of days later, when everyone wasn’t there. That’s when it suddenly became real. They asked him to – what did they ask you to do?”

“They just wanted me to go to the bathroom,” Kyle says.

“Yes, to go to the bathroom. And to see him not able to do that, that’s when it hit home. This is really bad. This is really bad. We’re on our own. And this is really bad.”

The doctors told him it would be six months before he could race again. And even then, they were not sure that he would ever be able to do things physically in a car that he did before. The problem was not the badly broken right leg, but the broken foot on the left leg. That’s the brake foot for Kyle Busch. At first, he also wondered if he could come all the way back. But then — somewhat to his own surprise — he found himself determined to come back way sooner than anyone expected.

“I went to the hospital the next day,” Joe Gibbs says. “And he says to me, ‘Look!’ And he’s wiggling to his toe. I said to him, “Are you supposed to be doing that?’ And he said, ‘Uh, no, the doctor told me not to do that. But look! I can!’”

The rehabilitation was as grueling as you might imagine. Samantha’s father and Kyle’s dad put a hospital bed in the family living room. From there, he would do the painful exercises every day and, in his spare time, watch the races. He showed up for team meetings. He imagined himself in the race car. The doctors said six months. He told Samantha he would be back in three.

“I’m going to be back for the All-Star race in Charlotte,” Kyle said. “And I’m going to be standing with you when the baby’s born.”

And this is where the story takes a whole different turn because Kyle Busch did make it back to the All-Star race (he finished sixth) just 12 weeks after the accident. And two days later, he stood in the hospital room when Brexton was born.

“I wasn’t standing too good,” Kyle says. “But I was standing tall.”

* * *

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The Sonoma victory was a shocker. That was Busch’s fifth race back and nobody — Joe Gibbs included — gave him much chance on a road course, not when he still needed to use his right leg just to help his left handle the brake. Busch had finished 43rd the week before in Michigan. There was a quiet understanding that this was probably going to be a lost year. Heck, Gibbs wasn’t even planning on attending until Samantha begged him to go.

The racing gods were with Kyle and crew chief Adam Stevens in Sonoma. Twice, just as they pitted, the caution flag came out. “It was like money,” Busch says. Then, with nine laps to go, they decided to pit and get new tires. A few drivers stayed out on the course. It was the perfect call. Busch raced by the cars, took the lead and took the checkered flag.

The plane ride home was remarkable; it might have been the best part of the whole day. Usually people sleep on these cross-country plane rides back to Charlotte, but nobody did this night. Joe Gibbs told a bunch of football stories, including one about a quarterback whose leg was snapped much in the same way that Kyle’s leg was snapped. Joe Theismann never played another down. Kyle, in a very different sport, won a race almost exactly fourth months later.

MORE: Bond between Busch, Stevens already passed tests

“It’s a miracle,” Joe Gibbs pronounced.

And then, well, it’s hard to explain it, but good things have just kept happening for Kyle Busch and his racing team. Two weeks after Sonoma, in Kentucky, Kyle was losing ground to Joey Logano, and with 30 laps to go he decided in desperation to try a different line around the track. “I thought, ‘Man I got no other choice but to try something different.’” he said. It worked. He ran down Logano and won his second race in three weeks.

The next week in Loudon, Busch again pitted at just the right time and managed to get back on the lead lap just before a caution flag came out. He beat Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick to the finish for a second straight victory.

Then came the Brickyard 400 and what might be the biggest victory in Kyle Busch’s career. It cemented what has become a powerful chemistry between Busch and crew chief Stevens. Kyle says that he had long wanted what he calls the “Chad and Jimmie thing.” That refers to the almost perfect balance struck between crew chief Chad Knaus and driver Jimmie Johnson. The two are friends, but they are also fight a lot. They are similar in some ways and so different in others that they push each other constantly to higher ground. Busch says he has had good relationships with his crew chiefs, but it has never been quite like that.

This year, Stevens became Busch’s crew chief, and the two have been learning each other all year. At Indianapolis, though, they began to understand each other. Busch realized early in the race that he had one of the two best cars on the track. There was no way he was going to lose. Then, with the car running well, Stevens told Busch to come in and pit.

“I’m like, ‘What? What are you talking about? No way!’” Kyle says.

“It was amazing to listen to on the radio,” Samantha says. “Kyle’s saying, “Do you really think we should do this? And Adam’s like, ‘It’s my plan. I made it. We’re doing it. End of story.’ He’s just so confident.”

“Yeah,” Kyle says. “I was like, ‘OK, here we go. See this guy throw it away.’ And lo and behold, it works out. It works to perfection.”

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Busch’s pit timing was perfect, he got the best of three late restarts and he became the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win three races in row. But it was more remarkable even than that. Busch had also won the Xfinity race in Indianapolis, making him the first driver to sweep at Indy. He won the pole the next week at Pocono and was in position when he ran out of gas with half a lap to go.

He finished second a week later at Watkins Glen — and probably could have won the race but made the prudent decision to get as many points as possible to secure a place in the NASCAR Chase. Then, this week at Bristol, he led 192 laps and finished a solid eighth. Six weeks ago, almost no one would have thought Busch had a realistic chance of making the Chase. Now, with a couple of races still left, he looks close to a lock to make it.

“What’s the difference?” reporters asked him after Indianapolis.

“I just think that maybe I’ve found my happy place,” Kyle Busch said.

* * *

Kyle and Samantha are not overly fond of the “Kyle Busch has matured this year,” stories that follow them around these days. They get it. The story is pretty obvious. He’s a new father. He came back from his first injury. He’s matured. But they think it’s oversimplifies things — even before the accident and the birth of Brexton, he was not the same man he had been.

“Look there are some drivers that are 18 years old and more mature,” he says. “For myself, I guess I would probably be one of the less mature ones. I probably wasn’t ready at 18.”

“I always think it’s so funny, people say, ‘Oh Kyle is so much more mature,’” Samantha adds. “I’m like, ‘Look how long he’s been doing this. It’s no different than looking at any 18-year-old vs. a 30-year-old man. Kyle just had to mature in the public eye, so people have missed that he’s different.’”

Of course, this year has been unlike anything Kyle and Samantha have faced before. There was the injury, of course, but obviously the most significant part of the year was having Brexton. They had tried for a long time to have a child. Having Brexton was, Samantha says, a small miracle and it inspired them to start the “Bundle of Joy Fund” where they help families struggling with infertility.

“We always say God does everything for a reason,” Samantha says. “We tried to have Brexton for a really long time, and it didn’t happen. It was really hard. And when Brexton was born we knew, in our hearts, that we went through this so we would start this fund to help other couples.

“The same thing with the injury. We both believe we went through it for a reason. … Someday it will be an amazing lesson for Brexton. We will be able to tell him, ‘Look at what your father went through. And look how he came through it.’”

Joe Gibbs believes that it wasn’t just a lesson for Brexton. It was a lesson for Kyle Busch too.

“The thing I see with Kyle is that he deals with adversity in the race car so much better,” Joe Gibbs says. “Think about it, if you are a great driver, you are going to win how often? Ten percent of the time? Fifteen percent? If you have an amazing year, maybe you win 20 percent? That means there will be a lot more times when things don’t go your way.

“I think that was the hardest part for Kyle. He would get frustrated when things weren’t going well. He didn’t always handle that frustration well. I think after the accident, after his son was born, he started to get a little bit better perspective. He almost had racing taken away from him. You’ll have to ask him, but I think that changed the way he sees things.”

“Yes, it really has changed things,” Kyle says. “Years ago, I just wanted to win. That was it. I wanted to keep racking up all these winning numbers and blow everybody out of the water. I think now, maybe since going through the accident, I think a little different. You just never know when your last race is. So you never know when your last win is either.”

He smiles. When he was 20, he had his trucks painted to look just like Rowdy Burns’ car from “Days of Thunder.” But that was a long time ago. Things are different now. Sure, he still loves racing. And he still loves the idea of being dangerous. But, you know, he’s still got a plate in his foot and he’s got a little boy who can’t walk or talk just yet, but already he’s watching closely.

“The older you get,” Kyle says, “you start to see other people do thing things you did once. And you get to laugh at them and be like, ‘Man, I was that idiot too.’ It’s like, ‘OK, boy, it does look bad on this side of it.’ I can tell you, it doesn’t look nearly as bad from the inside.”

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