Most Nascar experts have never questioned Kyle Busch’s racing ability. The driver named “Rowdy” was always destined to win a Spring Cup championship — the question was not if, but when.
Busch put those questions to rest in 2015 under the guidance of first-year crew chief and Portsmouth native Adam Stevens.
“It’s the highest level of our sport, it’s like winning the Super Bowl,” Stevens said. “This is the pinnacle of motorsports in North America. Just to get there and be able to race for it is quite an accomplishment, and to be able to win it all is very special.
“It’s so special and so big that it’s going to take a while for it to sink in.”
Stevens’ first year was anything but typical. The season began at Daytona when the former Portsmouth Notre Dame graduate watched Busch break his leg in a Nascar Xfinity race on Saturday, one day before the sport’s biggest race — the Daytona 500 — was scheduled to begin.
“You get to Daytona and your driver is injured before you even start your race,” Stevens said. “It went from an all out, full-court press to an emergency situation before we even ran our first race in the cup series. It was quite a whirlwind.”
With Busch sidelined for a couple of months, Stevens worked with substitute drivers until Busch was able to return. As far as the Chase was concerned, which is Nascar’s version of the playoffs, the rules state that each driver must compete in every race and remain in the top 30 in points to qualify.
However, with the injury to Busch, Nascar granted Busch a wavier, giving him the opportunity to make the Chase.
“When they laid the framework out for us, it was the same thing they had done in the past for injured drivers,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t a surprise because it’s the same protocol they’ve used in the past.
“The thing that scared me the most wasn’t winning a race but was getting in the top 30 in points. If you looked historically from the point when we thought Kyle might be ready to come back, we were going to need to average a 13th or 14th place finish from that point in the season on.”
When Busch was able to return to the track, he would have to win a race and finish in the top 30 in points to qualify for the post-season event.
“I knew full well the team was capable of running 13th or 14th every week, but there are so many things that can go wrong on a race weekend — a blown tire, a blown engine, a crash, a miscue on pit road, a bad decision on my part; there are so many things that can happen that can get that average finish going the wrong way. When you reduce the number of events, it doesn’t take to many of those to really get yourself out of contention,” Stevens said.
“I was nervous about that and the second thing is once we got the OK from Nascar, I didn’t know what shape Kyle was going to be in. He hadn’t been in a car in months. I didn’t know if he had all the feeling back in his feet and his toes, and if that was going to affect his car control or if he was shaken mentally … There were a lot of unknowns prior to him coming back.”
Under Stevens direction, once Busch returned to the track, he won three consecutive Sprint Cup Races and 4-out-of-5 events just to qualify for Nascar’s Chase format.
“When he came back, it was the All-Star race and he hadn’t been in a car, and he finished sixth,” Stevens said. “I felt that was good. It was a good start getting him back on the track and figuring each other out again.
“We didn’t really have a poor showing. We had some poor finishing but we were competitive in those races. That gave me and him a lot of confidence that we were doing the right things and it was going to come together.”
Now that Stevens is a Sprint Cup winning crew Chief, he’s still trying to come to terms with the reality while already preparing for the Daytona 500 in February.
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.