12 May 2015
NASCAR: Kyle Busch to make All-Star return this weekend
Kyle Busch has announced that he will be back behind the wheel of the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing car this weekend after two and a half months on the sidelines.
Kyle Busch will return to competition for this weekend's non-championship Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway after missing the first 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2015 season as a result of injuries sustained in a hard crash at Daytona International Speedway in February.
Busch revealed the news himself via a post on Twitter, which read "I'm back" and included the hashtag #RowdyReturns along with a link to a 24-second video showing him back in his racing firesuit and pulling down the visor of his helmet.
Joe Gibbs Racing subsequently confirmed that Busch had received medical clearance to return to on-track activity and that he would back in the #18 M&Ms Red Nose Toyota for Saturday night's exhibition event.
"I feel like this is a great accomplishment for myself to come back as quickly as I've been able to," Busch told reporters on a teleconference call. "I don't think the All-Star Race would have been when anyone expected me to come back when we were laying in the hospital down in Daytona."
Busch will not wear a leg brace in the car and expects only low-level soreness from working the pedals. If anything, the most painful part of the weekend is likely to be walking to and from the garage, which he will doing with a noticeable limp.
Busch suffered a compound fracture of the right lower leg and also a left mid-foot fracture in an accident in the first NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the year on February 21, when contact sent him spinning into a hard hit with a part of the retaining wall not covered by an impact-absorbing SAFETY barrier.
Matt Crafton subbed for Busch in the Daytona 500 the day after the accident, after which JGR recruited Front Row Motorsport's David Ragan to fill in for Busch while he recuperated. Ragan has now left the team to take up a full-time role for the rest of 2015 with Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers who is also currently out of action with medical issues.
That gave JGR the chance to hand teenage development driver Erik Jones his official Sprint Cup début last weekend at Kansas Speedway. The team's initial announcement said that Jones would remain in the car until Busch returned to competition, but last weekend Jones admitted that he'd only had discussions about racing for the team at Kansas. Jones will be on standby this weekend to takeover from Busch if there are any unforeseen setbacks.
Jones' comments at Kansas immediately gave rise to speculation that Busch's return might be more imminent than had been widely predicted. Neither Busch nor the team had publicly given any indication of when they were expecting Busch to be well enough to drive again. In 2013, a more serious double compound fracture for Tony Stewart left the three-time Cup champion out of action for nearly six months.
Bush had previously been thought to be aiming for a return in June, and by July 5 at the latest when the Sprint Cup Series makes its summer return to Daytona for the first time since Busch's accident.
The big question now is whether Busch has any chance of making it into this year's Chase that will decide the 2015 championship. NASCAR is yet to say whether they will hand Busch waiver for missing ten races so far this season, which is an eligibility requirement under the current rules.
Waivers have been handed to drivers before, including Busch's JGR team mate Denny Hamlin in 2013 when he suffered a back injury in a crash at Fontana. More recently, Kyle's brother Kurt Busch was granted a waiver after he missed the first three races of the season as a result of being on suspension over allegations of domestic abuse.
NASCAR boss Brian France has already hinted that a waiver will be forthcoming, admitting recently that he wanted to do whatever was possible to give Busch a chance to be competitive in 2015 and hinting that the sanctioning body felt some degree of responsibility for the extent of Busch's injuries at Daytona because of the lack of a SAFER barrier at the point of impact.
Even if Busch does receive a waiver over his missing participations, he'll still be up against it to fight his way back into the top 30 in the championship standings, another requirements for Chase eligibility. Tony Stewart is currently in 30th place in the standings with 179 points after 11 race with 15 to go before the cut-off for setting the Chase line-up at Richmond International Raceway in September.
Kyle's brother Kurt easily made his way back into the top 30 after his own absence and is now up to 14th place in the current standings after Kansas, but at that point of the season Kurt was starting only 42 points outside. If maintained at the same rate for the next 15 races, Stewart's current points tally would extrapolate to a target for Busch of 423 meaning that he will need to finish on average in the top 15 between now and the cut-off.
Even if Kyle Busch gets the participation waiver and makes it back into the top 30 in time for the play-offs, he'll still need to actually win a race to stand a chance of making it into the Chase. Busch has 29 wins in 365 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series outings since his Cup début in his home event in Las Vegas in 2004, but his most recent visit to victory lane was over a year ago in March 2014 at Auto Club Speedway.
The next Sprint Cup race on the calendar is also the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 which takes place on May 24 on the same day as the Indianapolis 500. That will certainly be a huge test of Busch's fitness and full recovery, assuming that all goes well in the All-Star Race this weekend.
Busch, who recently turned 30, is expecting his first child with wife Samantha later this month.
UPDATE: NASCAR confirmed on Wednesday that it had granted Kyle Busch a waiver from the requirement that he compete in all 26 regular races in 2015 to remain eligible for the Chase. However, he will still have to finish in the top 30 in the points if he is to secure a place in the championship play-offs, and will need to win at least one race in the 15 events remaining before the cut-off to decide the Chase line-up in September.
"On behalf of everyone at NASCAR, it's great to have Kyle Busch back racing," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "Our decision to grant Kyle a waiver that allows him to continue running for a championship is one we discussed extensively. The spirit of the rule never was designed to punish drivers who are unable to compete due to extenuating circumstances such as recovering from a racing accident.
"We wish Kyle the best of luck in the balance of the season, and look forward to his return to the car this week for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway."
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