CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Walking gingerly, his mood upbeat, Kyle Busch climbed back into his race car for the first time in almost three months.
He quickly settled into the No. 18 Toyota, got used to his new seat, and ripped the fastest lap in Friday’s practice session for the All-Star race.
Make no mistake, Rowdy has officially returned.
“I didn’t sleep all that great last night and I was wondering why — I wasn’t sure if my body was just thinking I would miss an alarm,” Busch said Friday.
Busch broke his right leg and left foot when he crashed into a concrete wall during the Feb. 21 Xfinity Series race at Daytona. He missed the Daytona 500 the day after the accident and 10 other races, but had his eye on returning for Saturday night’s $1 million All-Star race during his recovery.
The date seemed optimistic to his doctors, who weren’t quite sure Busch could recover from his injuries in such a fast timeframe. But he was determined, even as he admitted Friday that he briefly considered trying to get back for races at Talladega or Kansas before giving himself two more weeks to heal.
“Charlotte looked really good and it seems, so far, to be a good choice to come back for here,” he said. “I think it was kind of always a goal, and whether or not I could meet that goal was just how hard we worked and pushed and tried to get ready for this day.”
Although the All-Star race doesn’t count toward the Sprint Cup standings, Busch will use this weekend as a warmup for the May 24 Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of the NASCAR season.
He’s been granted a waiver to participate in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship should he qualify, which would likely require him not only cracking the top 30 in points but also winning a race.
Busch believes it gives him a solid shot to make the 16-driver field and race for the title.
“It gives us a legitimate chance to try to qualify for the Chase and to be able to race for a championship. That’s all you can ask for,” he said. “I’m ready to tackle the challenge. I know it’s not quite going to be easy, but if we do the right things and make some of the right calls and try to win some of these races, we’ll see what we can do and get ourselves Chase eligible, and go race them in the end.”
His return was welcomed by his fellow competitors, who also didn’t seem to object to him receiving the waiver.
“I know as much as he enjoys racing and as good of a race car driver as he is, it had to be really tough on him,” Kasey Kahne said Friday. “I’m glad he’s back. As soon as I heard he was coming back, I was texting him like ‘Man, it’s great to hear. I’m excited for you.’
“He’s a big part of the Sprint Cup Series. There are so many fans that enjoy watching him and I know racing with him and just seeing him out on the race track, it’s better when he’s there. I’m glad that he’s back out here.”
As Busch began his first practice, his wife, Samantha, tweeted how emotional the moment was for the couple. She’s pregnant with their first child, a boy due next week.
Busch acknowledged the couple shared a quiet moment Friday morning over breakfast, and he jokingly told his wife to not go into early labor before he gets to race Saturday night. They also took a few minutes together before he headed to his race car.
“It was a nice moment as I was getting ready to walk out to the garage, we hugged for a little while and she said that what we had was all over with, having to go through all the trials and tribulations of figuring out how to stand up, how to walk,” Busch said. “That’s all over and it seems as though we’re back to our normal schedule, although sometimes it takes a little longer for me to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B.’ Hopefully, not too much longer that will be right back to where it was, too.”