DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Kurt Busch might have received a proper sendoff this weekend in Las Vegas, where his hometown track treated him cruelly over 21 tries until he broke through for a win in 2020.
Busch could have been feted with gifts as part of a season-long farewell tour. His parents who helped mold him into a ferocious stock car driver would have cheered him on. Little brother Kyle would take him on in one of the final brother vs. brother battles in the desert.
Yet, those scenarios are implausible now for the 44-year-old Busch, his career prematurely curtailed because of lingering effects from a concussion suffered in a wreck during qualifying last summer at Pocono Raceway.
Busch instead is now a de facto consultant for his old 23XI Racing team and Toyota. He counseled Travis Pastrana at the Daytona 500. He championed crew chief Billy Scott as the next Chad Knaus, and Busch has thrown his arms around anyone in the garage who needs advice. He’s chatted up sponsors and is doing the grunt work needed to make the gears turn on the team co-owned by Michael Jordan.
He just can’t race.
Busch is still walking out of a fog from the blunt impact his brain absorbed in the crash. He’s vowed to race in a competitive series again — even if a Cup Series ride is out of reach — but he has not yet been cleared by doctors.
“When you look at the therapist, and he’s looking back at you, there’s work to be done,” Busch said. “That’s really all I can give you.”
Busch is hopeful a new physical therapy program designed to strengthen balance and eye movement will aid in a full recovery. Until then, Busch keeps pushing in a journey without a true finish line in sight.
“Go-karting has been fine for me, the simulator has been fine,” Busch said. “It’s just when I had my head in the headrest and there’s that movement, that bothers me.”
NASCAR’s dramatic safety upgrades that included SAFER barriers and head-and-neck restraints in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500 lulled fans into thinking drivers were bullet proof inside their modernized cars. NASCAR has not suffered a racing death in its three national series since 2001 and most drivers — think Ryan Newman surviving a fiery crash at the 2020 Daytona 500 — escape even the scariest wrecks relatively unscathed.
Jeff Burton, an NBC Sports announcer and former driver, said Busch “was still as good as he’s ever been” when the 2017 Daytona 500 champion took his No. 45 Toyota out last July for what should have been a routine qualifying lap on the 2½-mile track in Pennsylvania. Busch, though, seemed to lose control as the Toyota slid up the track and the right rear slammed square into the wall.
The car whipped around and the nose violently tagged the wall, as well.
Looked bad, yes. But certainly not any worse to the naked eye than most wrecks. Busch apologized over the radio and then waved to the crowd to signal he was “OK” as he walked to the waiting ambulance — and hasn’t been inside a Cup car for a race since.
Busch told The Associated Press he was told the rear hit registered at a brain-rattling 30 G’s — consider, modern fighter pilots pull a G-force of about nine — and the front smacked the wall at 18 G’s, numbers that raised concerns about safety in the Next Gen cars.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman missed five races with a concussion late last season after his Chevrolet hit the wall at Texas Motor Speedway, and multiple other drivers complained about the violence of routine hits and wondered if they too had suffered a concussion.
The drivers suddenly didn’t seem so invincible.
“The wreck might not look like it wasn’t that violent. But primal fear is — I leaned forward knowing I was backing into the fence,” Busch said, as he pulled his hands to his head. “If you feel fear coming from behind, you lean away. So I exaggerated the hit by leaning forward and that 30 G’s backward was something I never felt before. I don’t remember the right front hit. That’s when things got serious in the infield care center.”
Busch, who won 34 races in 776 starts over 23 years, and the 2004 Cup championship, said his examination in the moments after the wreck turned scary when he couldn’t stand up straight. Busch also couldn’t answer questions from doctors about thee impact of the front collision.
Busch returned to his motorhome and took a call from his dad. Busch told his dad, Tom, a former racer who built and won in his own cars, he wasn’t cleared to race at Pocono and surrendered his ride to rookie Ty Gibbs. Tom Busch told his son “it was probably that right front hit.”
“I go, ‘Why are you asking me the same thing?’ I don’t remember the right front hit,” Busch said. Tom Busch ended the conversation and told Kurt to watch a replay.
“That’s when it settled in,” Busch said. “That’s a whole different view.”
Busch, who also got divorced last year, leaned on his parents in the aftermath; his mother, Gaye, accompanied him on his doctor visits. The update is always the same: Busch is not cleared to race.
“There’s huge progress,” Busch said. “But to race with the best of the best, I’m not 100% and I feel it.”
Busch’s absence from the Daytona 500 meant there are no active Cup drivers who raced against Earnhardt. There’s a youth movement in NASCAR — fellow 40-something driver and NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick is calling it quits at the end of the season — and Busch conceded 2023 would have been his last one anyway.
“I see him doing a lot of different things and looking at his schedule and talking with some of the folks around him, he is somewhere doing something every day,” Kyle Busch said. “He is fine off the track, as much as it can be inside a Busch’s head anyway.”
Busch has told 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin he wanted to graduate into a coaching/adviser role once he retired.
Busch just wished the move could have come on his own terms. Busch served as one of the grand marshals at the Daytona 500 — he was selected as a driver who both won a Cup championship and the “Great American Race” — and tried to put a bright spin on his early retirement.
He soaked in the Florida sun and enjoyed the bustle of the fans, the camaraderie inside the garage and the thrill of another race day ahead — just like normal.
“Fans are here for the race and they’re all still rooting me on,” he said. “It’s like they want me to get back in the car and I feel that spirit.” ___ AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
This story was originally published February 28, 2023, 2:57 PM.