NASCAR has never seen comeback like Kurt Busch's
April 02, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
It was at Martinsville Speedway two years ago when the depth of the professional purgatory Kurt Busch had been cast into began to be truly defined. Starting his sixth race for a Phoenix Racing team operating on a financial shoestring, Busch had issues in qualifying and rolled off 40th. He suffered two tire failures, and as his crew attempted to repair one of them, the air gun broke. He wound up 18 laps down in 33rd place -- so far from a grandfather clock, it was impossible to see the hands on the dial.
At that point, it was natural to wonder if the Busch who had claimed the 2004 championship and won races in every season since would ever return to the same level again. That he was immensely talented, there was no doubt -- he had coaxed a rain-shortened ninth-place finish out of the same No. 51 car just a week earlier at Fontana -- but he had also burned bridges at two powerhouse organizations and was running short on options. No matter who had instigated it, no matter whether it was a mutual parting or not, his split from Penske Racing had cast him into a wilderness with no obvious return route.
Two years later, Busch was back at Martinsville, not just within reach of a Ridgeway clock but packing one up to bring home. His victory Sunday at the half-mile oval constituted the apex -- so far -- of one of the more amazing career comebacks in NASCAR history, one for which there is no true comparison or precedent. There he was dueling with old rival Jimmie Johnson again, just as he had done at the height of his Penske days, as if nothing had ever changed. But so much has. The 84-race span between Busch's two most recent wins represents a fall and rise unlike anything the sport has ever seen.
Now, NASCAR is no stranger to comebacks -- if anything, this is a sport built for them, given how long drivers can compete relative to athletes in other fields, and the multitude of factors capable of derailing a racer's career. In fact, Busch isn't the only current driver making one; the co-owner of his No. 41 car, Tony Stewart, is back behind the wheel after missing the final three months of last season with a broken leg, and AJ Allmendinger is embarking upon a hopeful first full-time campaign since losing his ride over a positive drug test. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be termed in the midst of a comeback, one that hit full stride late last season after a lull in his career.
But Busch's is unique in so many ways -- he reached such heights, and he fell so far, and for such uncommon reasons before digging himself out again. Think back to December of 2011: here was a champion driver with 24 career wins who had made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in four of his six years with Penske, cut loose after an acrimonious season with zero top-tier options available to him. He spent a season toiling with cash-strapped Phoenix, then a season pulling unheralded Furniture Row Racing into relevance, and returned to an elite team after a fortuitous conversation with Gene Haas at a Chevrolet dinner. Now he's a winner again, and likely back in the Chase. Think what you might about the elder Busch brother, but if his comeback continues trending in its current direction, it could be nothing short of legendary.
Does anything compare? There's Cale Yarborough, who won 13 races driving for the Wood Brothers, and left for open-wheel racing due to manufacturer cutbacks before returning to win three championships with Junior Johnson. There's David Pearson, who won three titles with Cotton Owens and Holman-Moody, who left due to a pay decrease and struggled in a brief stint with the team owned by Chris Vallo and Ray Nichels before returning to prominence with the Woods. There's Buddy Baker, who didn’t click with Bud Moore's team and moved on to join forces with Harry Ranier. And yet, none of those examples quite match up with the saga Busch has been on the past two years.
And then there are the drivers who, like Stewart, returned from health issues or injuries to compete again at a high level. Ernie Irvan was a 12-time winner at NASCAR's highest level before suffering a head injury in a 1994 crash at Michigan, and after more than a year of recovery he returned to win three more times. Tim Richmond was an 11-time winner who missed nearly a dozen events in 1987 due to complications of the condition that would ultimately take his life, but returned to win back-to-back races before his career drew prematurely to a close. Darrell Waltrip missed five races with a broken leg in 1990, and returned to win five more races over the following two seasons.
Now, clearly, comebacks from physical illness or injury comprise a special category unto themselves, given the pain involved in recovery and the potential for skills to be diminished in the aftermath. The fact that Irvan returned from such a devastating injury -- doctors originally gave him just a 10 percent chance of survival -- to once again win races, and might have kept on winning them if not for another accident, almost certainly stands as the most impressive NASCAR career comeback of all time. But that's not to denigrate the rebound we're witnessing now by Busch, who's had to do a different kind of healing, a type that's involved repairing his reputation and regaining the trust of some in the garage area.
And in the process, complete a comeback with no equal. Some may draw parallels to the story of Curtis Turner -- who won 16 races before being banned by NASCAR for trying to form a driver's union, and sat out four years before returning to claim his final career victory -- but Turner never ran a full season, never won a title, and had been out of racing for two years by the time of his fatal airplane crash. There's no real equivalent to the steepness of Busch's career arc, and the reason for the sudden trough in the middle. And anyone who doubts his continued rise need only to look back at the past two seasons, during which Busch rebuilt himself without benefit of the resources he has surrounding him now.
So yes, for Kurt Busch it has indeed been an eventful two years between those Martinsville races of 2012 and 2014 -- one representing the bottom, and the other the highest crest since. The career comeback in between has been nothing short of extraordinary, even in a sport that's seen just about everything. And the really interesting thing? It's only just beginning.