The day before this year’s Daytona 500, I spun off the track during an Xfinity Series race. Usually when you crash, you don’t have much time to process it. That’s a good thing. But this time, I slid across the infield grass for about four seconds. It actually felt like four minutes. I could see the wall getting closer and closer and it gave me enough time to think, Well, this is gonna suck.
I hit the wall head-on at 90 miles per hour.
I could feel it right away. Right leg broken. Left foot broken.
Okay, this is bad.
Then I saw the flash fire start on the hood of the car.
Okay, this is really bad. Get out. Get out.
I unbuckled as fast as I could and tossed the steering wheel on the dash. My legs were completely limp, so I pulled myself out through the window with my arms. You don’t realize how hard this is until your legs don’t work. I was sitting on the door of the car when the safety workers arrived and tried to take me out. Then I started shouting.
“I got a broken leg and a broken foot!”
They couldn’t make out what I was saying.
“Broken leg and broken foot! Broken leg and broken foot!”
I wanted to make sure they didn’t try to stand me up.
They laid me out on a stretcher and I looked down and saw my foot going in a direction it definitely shouldn’t go. And I thought, Well, this is it. My racing career is over.
As they were stabilizing my legs with the straps, I started thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I figured I could always go back to doing my first job in Las Vegas, installing decals on cars. It was a decent gig. At least I’d still be in the garage.
I was already imagining how people would talk about me, “There’s ole’ Kyle, putting decals on that car he used to race. Damn shame.“
When I woke up the next day in the hospital after surgery, my wife was by my side. The Daytona 500 was on the little TV next to my bed. I watched another person get into my car and race it. As racers, we’re weekend warriors. We love every part of the race weekend. To be sitting there completely helpless in a hospital bed on Daytona Sunday was shocking. My wife and I just started crying as we watched.
My doctor said my timetable for recovery was a year. At that moment, I told myself no way. I didn’t have that kind of time. I was going to rehab like a maniac and get back in my car as soon as humanly possible.
That sounds great in an article, doesn’t it? Easy, man.
But here’s the reality of saying that to yourself:
The first day of rehab, the therapist has me in a bear hug. He sets me down on my feet for a second, and it’s like I get hit by lightning. Just excruciating pain shooting up my body. I start to literally see stars. I almost pass out.
That’s when I knew this was going to be a battle. It took me a full week of hard rehabbing before I could just stand still for five seconds without passing out. I guess in my head, I thought the doctors would tell me when I was good to go and I’d walk right out of the hospital a little gingerly.
I left the hospital in a wheelchair.
When I got home, I saw that my team had constructed a ramp for me in our garage to help me get in and out of the house. I got in the door and I saw all the furniture cleared out of the living room. There was a rented hospital bed sitting there. That’s when the grim reality really set it.
For six weeks, I sat there in that damn bed, pressing the stupid button to go up and down. I hated that thing. My wife stayed by my side and got me through it, despite being in her third trimester of pregnancy with our first child. I’d just lie there and watch the NASCAR shows and listen to the commentators say stuff like, “Oh man, this guy had such a great race this weekend, didn’t he? Boy was he good.”
And it would get me so fired up. I want that trophy. It takes me two hours to take a shower right now, but I want that damn trophy.
The truth is, I had never really been tested before. Not like this. I was supposed to do this rehab exercise with a rollerboard. The idea was to roll your ankle from side to side. That’s it. By the end of March, I still couldn’t even do it. My job involves cranking a gas pedal, and I couldn’t even attempt this exercise.
Our child was due in May. My motivation at that point was pretty simple: Don’t be sitting in a wheelchair in the corner of the room during labor. Be able to stand by your wife’s side and hold her hand.
When I thought about racing as my motivation, there was a very small element of pity to it. But when I thought about our son being born, it was just pure fire.
I’d push out two or three extra reps. I started improving little by little.
On May 18, my son Brexton was born. I’m proud to say I was standing there during the whole thing. Two days before, I climbed into my car again for the first time in an All-Star Race. The doctors told me a year. I was back in three months. But that was nothing compared to the feeling of seeing my newborn son lying on my wife’s chest.
That feeling is just … Nah, you can’t even try to describe it.
After that day, things were just a little bit easier for me to deal with. This year, I definitely let the race just happen. Let the cards fall where they may. If you knew me five years ago, you know I wasn’t that guy.
Perfect example: In late June, we went to Sonoma. This was the one race that my team was kind of dreading. It’s a road course, which means you have to break very hard into tight left and right turns. For someone who suffered my kind of injuries, it was not the best set up. My foot was just killing me. We were even looking into a backup driver. Ultimately, we weren’t able to find anyone, so I was just going to have to go out there and give it my best.
As we neared the end of the race, a caution came out, and the crew chief asked if I wanted to pit or keep going. I figured we weren’t going win from the position I was in, so we might as well pit. We put four new tires on the car, and then when they dropped the green flag, I made a good move and took the lead. My foot was the size of a football from the swelling, but somehow I found myself leading this thing with only three laps to go. I couldn’t believe it.
Guess who was right behind me? My brother Kurt, who had been the fastest car all day.
To this day, he claims that he could have caught me. I don’t think he was close enough. Regardless of what he might tell you, I beat him across the finish line.
And that’s the moment I knew I was back.
From there on out, I went into every other race with the same mentality. Instead of forcing my way to a win, I took what the race gave me. My team kept giving me great cars to work with, and I kept getting results.
This past weekend, I climbed into the car for the Sprint Cup Championship. Final four. All the marbles. My son is there watching with his big earbuds. I’m lining up against Jeff Gordon in his last race. I mean, are you kidding me? Eight months ago, I was watching these races from my stupid hospital bed and cursing at the TV.
So I can’t lose. Just race, man. This is what it’s all about.
Early in the the race, I got passed for the lead by Jeff Gordon, who was followed by Kevin Harvick. Behind me was Martin Truex Jr. All four championship contenders were right there, duking it out. I knew right then this was going to be a classic. I’d have to race my guts out for this one.
When we got to about lap 200, we had a pit stop — the final green flag stop of the night — and I had momentum. I was behind Brad Keselowski for the lead, but I had gapped Kevin Harvick, who I was racing for the title at that point. As I kept distancing myself from Kevin, it started to look like I might be able to win the whole race. Kyle Larson joined us in the lead, and we were all separated by about one second, with Kevin still trailing behind. I was perfectly fine with how things were going. If I held position, I had the championship.
I could feel the pressure coming on so … Well, I started singing the theme song from my son’s favorite learning game, VocabuLarry.
Who’s that swingin’ up and down?
Join him as he has some fun
Look at Larry, he’s so bright
Learns new words and gets them right
Look, what can I say? It kept me focused.
But then another caution comes out, with 10 laps to go. I couldn’t believe it. I had been paying close attention to how the car was running and I knew if a yellow happened we’d have to pit to get new tires. I came over the radio and gave the crew chief all the tiny adjustments I wanted on the car for the final run. The crew did a great job with the change, and we restarted the race in second behind Brad. But when the green flag went up, Kevin Harvick was right behind me. I kept a close eye, but when we got to turns one and two, I just held that thing wide open and decided to go as fast as I could. I figured if there was ever a time to see what that car had, this was it.
If Brad hung on to my left rear, he would have drug me back. And then Kevin probably would have gone low and made us three-wide going into turn three.
But luckily none of that happened. I got around the outside of Brad on turn two, and then I knew I had it. I had the championship.
When I was going down the back stretch, my spotter came over the radio, “Alright, you have 20 lengths behind you, just bring it home.”
As I came off turn four and saw the finish, the emotions started to hit me. I had tears in my eyes, and as I crossed the finish line I just started yelling and screaming.
We did it.
We did it.