Sometimes NASCAR acts in mysterious ways, but only rarely has the absolute ruler of major league stock car racing made its decisions based on being angst-ridden.
Should Kyle Busch, injured since a crash in an Xfinity Series race on the season's first weekend, win a race and reach 30th place in the Sprint Cup point standings, he will be eligible to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup at season’s end and, hence, win the championship. Wednesday’s announcement wasn’t unexpected. The rules stipulate that a driver must attempt to compete in every race, but a waiver has already been granted Kyle Busch’s older brother, Kurt, earlier this season.
For some, the waiver wasn’t enough. They have called for a waiver that would put Kyle Busch in the Chase if he wins a race, whether he reaches the top 30 or not.
Kyle Busch suffered a broken right leg and left foot in a crash at Daytona on Feb. 21. He has missed the season’s first 11 Sprint Cup races. He comes off the disabled list on Saturday night in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Sprint All-Star Race, and the scent of burning rubber and the fire of competition are sensations he has missed.
“Since I started my driving career back when I was 13 years old, I’ve never been out of the driver’s seat for this long,” he said in a media conference on Tuesday. “There may be some things that I’ve got to get back to becoming accustomed to again.
“I’ve raced for 16, 17 years of my life. This was the first major injury I’ve ever had. Hopefully, it’s just like riding a bike. You just get back on that thing and you go.”
Busch is 30. In terms of skill and experience, he should be at the height of his career. It’s unlikely that his considerable driving skills have been noticeably diminished by 11 races on the sidelines. The All-Star Race—short, segmented and less physically taxing—is made to order for a driver needing a refresher course following an injury.
|Kyle Busch's Illustrious NASCAR Career|
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The crash at Daytona was particularly controversial because his Toyota hit a concrete wall that had not been cushioned by SAFER barriers. In fact, NASCAR officials expressed remorse, accepting some blame for Busch’s injuries and beginning a program to remedy such problems at most of the tracks where Cup races are conducted.
All of that is laudable. Putting Kyle Busch in the Chase because they feel bad about his misfortune would not be.
“In my mind, I think the thing, if I had to say what would be the most [difficult], it would only be a ‘two factor’ on a one-to-10 [scale], is the amount of walking I would have to do between the hauler and the car, or pit road, whatever, for qualifying,” Busch said.
“I feel like the cardio aspect is there. … My feet, my legs, everything works good inside the race car. Even walking. Walking’s not that terrible. It’s just the amount of time being on your feet, standing on your feet. They tend to get a little tired a little quicker than what they used to. The more time I can take off being on the feet is better.”
No one would be surprised if Busch won one of the remaining 15 regular-season races. Reaching 30th in points is quite plausible but wouldn’t have been possible had NASCAR not changed the way points are awarded before the 2011 season.
Those who call for NASCAR to waive everything except the requirement that he win point to precedents like Jeff Gordon’s being added to the Chase for the Sprint Cup field in 2013 after a controversy in the final regular-season race.
The basic contention is that Busch should be made Chase-eligible because his injuries were NASCAR’s fault.
For his part, Busch has mildly lobbied for an exception.
“I know there’s some good dialogue on the subject,” he said in the media conference, “but I’m not aware that there’s been a decision made at this point. As I mentioned last month, I’d love to race for a win and a spot in the Chase. I think the ‘top 30 rule’ makes a lot of sense.
“But for me, in my mind, it was intended for someone in my situation [who] has a car, sponsor and team that was set to run the entire year for a championship. I think it was set up to keep guys from being able to grab a win at a road course or restrictor-plate track, or something like that.”
It’s not like Busch won’t be around for the Chase. In the final 10 races, a full field competes for the victory, but, under the present format, only 16 are eligible for the championship, and that number is gradually reduced to four for the final race in Homestead, Florida.
It’s entirely possible that NASCAR officials will let the issue lie for now. It may take the position that, unless and until Busch wins a race, there’s no need to address the matter of waiving the top-30 requirement. He isn’t going to qualify for the Chase based on points position alone, but a consistent progression of respectable finishes with few missteps might get well get him to the top 30.
Should Busch win several races in the Chase, without being eligible for the championship, it will lead fans to ponder what might have been, just as they might regarding any athlete in any sport struck down by accident or injury.
Busch got a bad break. He worked hard to get himself race-ready again. He has been approved to compete again. While he has never won a championship, and has become a bit known for underachieving during previous Chases, he is perhaps NASCAR’s most spectacular driver.
Winning a race is spectacular. Winning a championship after competing in only 15 of 26 regular-season races would be farcical.
Busch has already exceeded all expectations in terms of the length of his inactivity and recovery.
“I call it an accomplishment,” he said, “because it’s faster than anyone would have anticipated, even the doctors.
“All of them have been extremely pleased with how rapidly I’ve progressed. I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word, but we exceeded expectations for a return, that’s for sure.
One should only reluctantly compare one sport to another, particularly when one sport involves two teams playing head to head and the other consists of 43 teams vying to cross a finish line first. But if Busch were to be granted a pardon from abiding by the system in place, it might be most akin to a baseball player missing half a season and be declared eligible to win one of the areas where that sport has “races”: the batting championship or the earned run average crown, for instance.
The last thing the sport needs right now is a champion with an asterisk attached to his name.
All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.