In his half-century of coaching premiere athletes, Joe Gibbs has never seen a recovery to equal Kyle Busch's.
As the post-race activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway slowed on Sunday, team owner Joe Gibbs was still enjoying the moment.
Six months earlier, Gibbs had wondered whether Kyle Busch would come back from injuries at Daytona that snapped his right leg and broke his left foot. And if Busch returned, would he be the elite racer that the Coach had seen blossom during his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing?
Busch’s situation wasn’t the only burden weighing on Gibbs. In March, the family acknowledged that J.D. Gibbs, 46, Coach’s oldest son and JGR’s president, was being treated for symptoms impacting areas of brain function.
An emotional victory
So after Busch won his fourth race in his last five starts — and admittedly the biggest victory of his career — then took a victory lap around the Brickyard with J.D. at his side, Coach had to share the experience with his wife Pat, who was home in North Carolina.
“She cried,” Gibbs told Motorsport.com.
In 50 years of coaching championship teams both in the NFL and NASCAR, Gibbs acknowledged he’s never witnessed a renaissance of this magnitude with any athlete. In Busch’s first season at JGR, he won two of the first nine races and had eight victories before the 22nd race of the season at Watkins Glen. But after making his return for the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Busch has four victories in nine starts for a winning percentage of 44.44.
If you get a serious injury like that, there’s a lot that goes through everybody’s mind,” Gibbs said. “‘How’s he going to come back?
Joe Gibbs on Kyle Busch's Daytona injury
“Considering the year and what has happened, I haven’t,” Gibbs said. “To think what a tragedy it was — Kyle getting hurt — the whole team had to sit and wait for 11 weeks. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) held everybody together and we all worked hard.
“But, really, I think you’d have to say the odds were against us making the Chase, for sure. Could you win a race? I thought that was going to be the hardest thing for us to do — was win a race. To take that scenario and to wind up where we are now, I have never experienced anything like that over here.”
The long road back
Surprisingly quick recovery
Busch’s determination carried him through extensive rehabilitation to regain the mobility following a double compound fracture to his right leg and a broken left foot that has a plate on his No. 1 metatarsal which according to the driver has “immobilized two joints”. Busch, who turned 30 in May, surprised doctors with his quick recovery.
However, for the race team, many questions remained. But Busch quickly put all doubts to rest.
"Is he still going to be Kyle Busch — aggressive, go-for-it, or is that going to take away some of that stinger, that aggression?" - Joe Gibbs
“If you get a serious injury like that, there’s a lot that goes through everybody’s mind,” Gibbs said. “‘How’s he going to come back? Can he physically come back?’ So that’s one thing. He did all the rehab and everything to come back. They you say, “How much did it affect him up here (points to his head)? Is he still going to be Kyle Busch — aggressive, go-for-it, or is that going to take away some of that stinger, that aggression?’
“Actually,” Gibbs paused, then laughed, “I think from the day I went to see him after surgery he was already talking about, ‘I’m coming back. I want to come back. I want to come back at the All-Star race.’ The doctors told me it would probably be at least 12 weeks, and he beat that timing. So I would say that is the unusual part of all this. Normally, an injury like that takes something away. But I don’t think it has.”
Gibbs notices a change in Busch
Gibbs has seen a change in his alpha driver — but for the good. Maybe the transition stemmed from his time on the sidelines or perhaps after becoming a father to son Brexton in May, but Gibbs says his once petulant driver “is dealing with adversity much better than he used to.”
“He’s had some disappointments,” Gibbs said. “Last week in the XFINITY race he wound up third. We all know in the past he would’ve freaked out (laughs). This year, he handled it. Talked about it. You hear him on the race track, there are times when he could have gotten upset about stuff and he’s handling things much smoother than he used to.
Kyle’s a strong personality. It’s good to have someone working with him who is strong, makes good decisions and most importantly, they respect each other.
Joe Gibbs on Adam Stevens/Kyle Busch pairing
“I think that’s helping him. He’s better focussed. He gives the crew chief better feedback — and he and Adam, that’s a story in itself. A rookie crew chief. The crew chief changes that we made helped a lot.”
A fresh start
With Carl Edwards arrival at JGR for 2015, the organization shuffled teams and drivers in the off-season. Busch had been aware of Stevens as the lead engineer on the No. 20 car for crew chief Greg Zipadelli and driver Tony Stewart when he first arrived at the company in 2008. Although Busch never spent much time with Stevens before he became a crew chief in the XFINITY Series, the pair’s success was immediate. In the last two years, the duo won 19 races in 52 starts.
Driver/Crew Chief shakeup pays off
While Busch enjoyed tremendous success with his former Sprint Cup crew chief Dave Rogers, Gibbs acknowledged that Stevens won’t hesitate to let the driver know who’s calling the shots.
“We had a lot of confidence in Adam,” Gibbs added. “He makes decisions. There’s no ‘oh, or uh,’ it’s ‘we’re going to do this.’ And with Kyle, you better be somebody that’s knowledgable and ready to make decisions cause Kyle’s going to have a lot of input there if you don’t watch it.
“They’re a good combination. Kyle’s a strong personality. It’s good to have someone working with him who is strong, makes good decisions and most importantly, they respect each other. Kyle respects him and certainly, I think Adam respects Kyle.”
Busch told Motorsport.com Stevens has been a “great leader” for the team and he “enjoys” driving his race cars. Since Stevens moved over from the NXS team, he has earned the respect of the crew “and everybody loves working for him,” according to the driver. But while Busch has experienced similar relationships with previous crew chiefs, ultimately the goal is to find a relationship where both parties push the other to their highest potential.
"I think that's kind of the mutual respect we have for one another." - Kyle Busch
“Sometimes you've got to look and try to find that Jimmie Johnson / Chad Knaus‑type success,” Busch said. “And that's what we're all striving to be. I think they've set the bar so high that people have got to sometimes make changes, and you see that kind of going on in this business. Kevin (Harvick) did it, Carl (Edwards) did it, Matt (Kenseth) did it, so including myself, from Hendrick, I guess.
"But it's all just worked together so well for Adam and I. Sometimes I don't know how to read him. And I think that's probably a good thing, because people say the same thing about me, they don't know how to read me, so maybe that's just why sometimes we have fun, we joke, we talk, we laugh, you know, and other times the both of us don't say a word because we don't know what's going on in each other's heads. I think that's kind of the mutual respect we have for one another.”
Closing in on the Chase
Busch has yet to secure a position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Although he’s satisfied the win requirement, there’s still a 23-point deficit between Busch and 30th-place Justin Allgaier in the point standings. Finishing the 26-race regular season in the top 30 is the second prerequisite for the playoffs.
But given the relationship Busch has developed with Stevens, Gibbs just might have discovered the missing piece to the championship puzzle.