Kyle Busch returns to Victory Lane in a big way -- with big brother Kurt in tow.
In any other year, Kyle Busch would have been one of the favorites at Sonoma Raceway.
But after breaking his leg, injuring his foot and missing the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup season, it's unlikely that Busch topped any pundit's list for potential winners in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
Not surprisingly, Rowdy proved everyone wrong. On Sunday, in his fifth race of the season, Busch wheeled his way back into Victory Lane.
“I can’t say enough about my team,” Kyle Busch said. “I can’t say enough about Joe Gibbs Racing, everyone on my medical team — everybody that got me back in shape and ready to go behind the wheel."
Up on the wheel
The No. 18 M&Ms Toyota started the race 11th and led for the first time on Lap 28. But it was his restart on Lap 102 — when Busch bolted past Clint Bowyer — that sealed the deal.
The Michael Waltrip racer acknowledged, Busch “beat me to the lead and the rest was history.”
Busch and Bowyer were the first two cars with fresh tires. The front five cars stayed on the track during the fifth and final caution which was ignited after an axle broke on the No. 13 Chevy of Casey Mears.
But once Busch cleared Bowyer, he set his sights on the lead pack. Out of his windshield was race leader Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth — all who had stayed out on the track.
In the first two laps, Busch moved up to third then passed McMurray and made his move on Johnson in Turn 4 on Lap 105. Despite Bowyer challenging from Kyle behind, Kurt Busch was able to pass him on Lap 108 in Turn 11. But the battle between the Nos. 15 and 41 only allowed the No. 18 to extend his lead to 0.532-seconds at the finish.
That’s a Busch brother one-two. Mom and dad should be proud.
“Yes,” Kyle Busch exclaimed. “Are you kidding me? Woo Hoo! That’s a Busch brother one-two. Mom and dad should be proud.”
The best of the rest
Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano rounded out the top five. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. rounded out the top 10 finishers.
Kurt Busch made a valiant attempt on the restart as well, coming from ninth and picking off his contenders one at a time. However, his battle with Bowyer cost the No. 41 Haas Automation driver precious time in the closing laps. With two circuits to mount a challenge for his brother, time ran out.
“I think I was a little too patient on restarts because I knew my car was that good,” Busch said. “And so I didn't necessarily drive the proper race in my mind, but I think everything unfolded as good as it could have, and to bring our Haas Automation Chevy home second at a road course, you know, it's a testament to Stewart‑Haas Racing and everybody that puts in the effort to build these cars, and it's a lot of fun to drive.
“We led a lot of laps (43) today. We qualified second, finished second. I know it doesn't show much, but it's definitely a statement type of weekend for us.”
Busch, who missed the first three races of the season, moved into 10th in the point standings with his sixth top-five finish of 2015 — which includes wins at Richmond and Michigan. Still, after realizing it was the first time in 369 races running against his brother that the Busch’s finished one-two, Kurt acknowledged it was “a pretty special moment”.
“I've got over 500 starts,” Kurt Busch said. “I know he's over 300. Can you imagine, 800 starts between the two of us, we almost have 30 wins each, and that's the first time we've ever finished one‑two.
“I now I wish I would have gotten up there and moved him.”
But Busch acknowledged the pride he had for his younger sibling after battling back from such adversity to start the season.
I'm very proud of Kyle for what he's done to get back in the car as soon as he did get back in the car, and then to be competitive at a track with hard, hard braking and to use his left foot to drive to victory lane, I'm very proud of him.
“I know he's been through quite a bit; to have your leg broken, your foot shattered, to never be injured and out of the car, I don't know what that feels like,” Kurt Busch acknowledged. “But I do know that working with Tony Stewart and having him go through rehab, rehab is very difficult, and it is a mental challenge.
“I'm very proud of Kyle for what he's done to get back in the car as soon as he did get back in the car, and then to be competitive at a track with hard, hard braking and to use his left foot to drive to victory lane, I'm very proud of him. I just wish I could have one more lap to get to his bumper (laughter), but I think he didn't want to see an extra lap.”
An uphill battle
No doubt, the younger Busch still endured pain on one of the most taxing circuits on the tour. Following the race he acknowledged his foot was sore but “not as bad” as the driver expected. Busch said he “warmed” up his foot during Friday’s practice than iced it down afterward.
But in the closing laps of Sunday's contest, the pain wasn't even a concern for Kyle Busch.
“I can’t say enough about my brother," Busch said. "He certainly made it hard on Clint — and gave me 10 lengths, then eight lengths.
"I can’t say enough about M&Ms and their support over the years…and a course the fans.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who crashed in two of his first four races since his return understands the challenge ahead. After receiving a Chase waiver from NASCAR, Busch has accomplished the first task necessary to make the playoffs — by winning a race.
The victory also elevated Busch to 37th in the point standings but he still must overcome the 136 points standing between him and 30th-place Cole Whitt to transfer into the top 30 and earn at Chase berth.
As much as I can do, that’s what we’re going to do.
“We have our work cut out for us, we knew we did in the beginning and I knew we put us in the hole in points,” Busch said. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve had a couple crashes. I hate it for my guys, they don’t deserve to be in that spot. They have certainly worked hard all year long.
“David Ragan and Matt Crafton, those guys that have filled in for me, those guys never gave up and kept fighting hard the whole time, so I appreciate them for that and they deserve to be in the Chase. As much as I can do, that’s what we’re going to do.”