August 3, 2011. Road Atlanta. We were there for testing. All season, we were right on the cusp of winning races, but we just weren’t there. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the car. Maybe it was the team. Whatever it was, we were searching for that extra little bit to push us over the edge, the difference between winning and losing.
We were halfway through the day. I was behind the wheel of the Blue Deuce, entering Turn One — one of the fastest parts of the track, and a place where you’d normally hit the brakes. So I hit them.
They were gone.
The car flew off the track at 100 miles an hour. The No. 2 would have sailed straight into the heavy woods along that part of Road Atlanta if it hadn’t smashed into a concrete Jersey barrier first. It was a massive hit. The car ricocheted off the wall, back toward the track, before it came to a stop.
I knew I was hurt pretty badly. I waved out the window for help. I was still kind of dazed, but a small engine fire had started, and it was just a matter of time before it got worse.
Turn One is right by pit road. The 48 and the 88 teams were there that day. I pulled myself out of the car as best I could and fell to the ground, and right about then, Chad Knaus — Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief — showed up. He tried to help me stand. I did the typical guy thing, telling him that I thought I was okay, right before I collapsed to the ground like a wet noodle.
Track medical personnel showed up after that. They strapped me to a backboard because they thought I might have some kind of neck injury. My back was hurting so bad that the board made my injuries feel much worse. I was airlifted to the hospital.
What followed over the next week would be something I would never forget. It would present me with the kind of test you live for, a chance for me to really see what I was about as a man.
A FLAW IN THE DESIGN
To tell this story right, I need to jump back a few months before the wreck at Road Atlanta. As I said, the 2011 season had been a lot of almost but not quite. I had won earlier in the year at Kansas, but it was a fuel mileage race, and there’s something about fuel mileage races that just feel cloudy when you win them. I told my guys, “I really just want to win a race and earn it.”
We’d had our chances.
At the Coca-Cola 600, we qualified on the pole. We were running fourth with enough gas to go the distance, and there were three cars in front of me that didn’t. One of them ran out of gas, and we got in a big wreck. I lost the race that way. At Indianapolis — the week before the Road Atlanta wreck — we were leading the race in the late stages. A yellow came out and kind of put us off strategy. We finished 8th or 9th. That one was really gut-wrenching.
But the race that turned out to be the most telling prior to Road Atlanta was the All-Star Race.
I hadn’t been eligible for the All-Star Race that season based on wins, but despite a car that quite frankly wasn’t that good during the day, we got into the race by our performance in the Shootout. That night was a different story. Our car was really good. We were about a quarter of the way through the race, driving through the field, when the brakes stopped working.
At a track like Charlotte, that’s not a huge deal because you don’t use a lot of brakes. But at that year’s All-Star Race, you had to make a green flag pit stop. We tried to get to pit road, and as you’d imagine, without fully functioning brakes, we couldn’t stop. We got a speeding penalty. When we went to fix the brakes, we discovered that a bleeder screw had fallen out. A bleeder screw helps with air compression, which in turn, helps with the brake hydraulics. When the screw falls out, your brakes fail. We were done.
We didn’t know what had happened. It was just one of those things that you chalk up as a one in a million, a freak accident, and you move on.
Only it wasn’t. At Road Atlanta, the same thing had happened again. The bleeder screw had broke and fallen out. It turned out to be a design flaw in the part.
A SEASON ON THE LINE
When I was being airlifted to the hospital, I texted my mom to tell her that I was all right. Before then, when I’d been in accidents, she usually found out from the media. They don’t always tell the story that your mother wants to hear after you’ve been in a pretty good wreck. I wrote, “I’m being airlifted right now to the hospital, and I think I’m going to be okay. I just wanted you to hear it for me first.” I understated the situation to my mom a little bit, but that’s probably normal.
It was a matter of chance that I’d had my phone on me. During test sessions, I decided to hold onto it because there’s so much down time between runs. Later, I thought to myself, “That was pretty cool. I should keep my phone on me all the time.” So from that moment until I got fined in 2012, I kept my phone on me in the car. That was kind of the precursor of the famous “Fire! My view” tweet I eventually sent out at Daytona.
I was in so much pain because of my back, my ankle didn’t really even register at that point.
At the hospital, they switched me from one board to another, and when they did, I nearly stopped breathing because I was in so much pain. They started asking me, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” But my breath was completely gone. I couldn’t talk for what seemed like five or 10 minutes. The hospital staff appeared pretty freaked out, and they started cutting my clothes off. I think they were planning to operate because all I kept doing was pointing at my back.
I passed out — not for long, but long enough to know that it had happened. I was all bruised up from pretty much my sternum down. They gave me some kind of IV for pain medicine, and gave me a CT scan and an MRI. By the time they got done trying to figure out what was wrong with me, the pain medication kicked in and I was like, “All right! Life is good!” I tried to stand up again, and again, I fell over.
It was a really sad sight. I didn’t know what was going on. They decided to take my socks off, and when they did, they were full of blood. That’s when they discovered that my ankle was broken. I didn’t know. I was in so much pain because of my back, my ankle didn’t really even register at that point.
It was pretty nasty looking. People had been asking me on Twitter if I was okay, so I posted a picture of my ankle to show them what had happened.
Afterward, the doctors cast it up. From the CT scan, they basically decided that I had a pinched nerve in my back, which was causing all the pain. So that was that.
I flew home to Charlotte. We had a tough decision to make. If I missed the coming race at Pocono, I was going to miss the Chase. I was not okay with that. I’m a race car driver. This is what I do for living. We had three days to get better. I couldn’t walk or stand, but I decided right then: We’re going to tough it out.
Because the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with my back besides really bad bruising, I decided to go to a chiropractor. His name is Ryan Robinson, and he would eventually become one of my best friends. That night, he did whatever it is that chiropractors do.
Hours later, I walked out of his office.
Over the next couple of days, I did whatever I could to get my ankle better in preparation for Pocono. NASCAR also required me to take two full concussion tests to make sure there was nothing wrong. There wasn’t. I credit my HANS device for that. In motor sports, the HANS device is clearly the biggest safety advancement that has probably ever been made. It’s right there with the seatbelt. Because of it, my neck was supported during the crash. I never lost consciousness from the wreck. I never had a headache. I never had any concussion symptoms, not even in the least bit. The HANS device might very well have saved my life.
Driving a race car is working with a machine. The first time you get in a car when you’re 14 or 15 years old, very rarely does it come naturally. You might watch your parents. That’s not enough. Eventually, you learn how to trust the car. You trust that when you turn the wheel, it’s going to turn. You trust that when you hit the gas, it’s going to go. You trust that when you push the brakes, it’s going to stop.
When your car fails you like it failed me at the All-Star Race and then again at Road Atlanta, the feeling you get is almost like being robbed. It’s like someone broke into your house and stole all your stuff. You just have this little piece in the back of your mind where you’re like, “I just lost a little bit of trust in the people I’m around.”
In this case, I’d lost a little bit of trust in the car.
For me, getting past that involved stepping outside of the situation, and realizing what had gone on. The fact that the team was able to figure out what broke made it a lot easier. I could connect the dots and say, “All right, this brake bleeder broke or fell out. It wasn’t a mechanic issue. It was a design flaw in the part.” They fixed that, and had it corrected before we got back to Pocono. I think that’s what I needed to move on mentally.
Physically, I had a whole other challenge. As I discovered in the days leading up to the Good Sam RV Insurance 500, pushing the pedals down with my left foot — the one that was broken — hurt really, really badly. When I wrecked at Road Atlanta, I hit so hard that it pushed the engine out of the engine bay, all the way back to where the pedals are in the car. Imagine: The whole engine was where the pedals were supposed to be. So the pedals came back to where my feet were, and when they did, there was no more space. They broke my foot.
So my foot was hurting in all the areas that you would normally push a pedal down.
One of the things that helped me deal with it was the event I mentioned in my Memorial Day blog entry. That week, a U.S. military helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, and my cousin, who was in the Armed Forces, knew many of the people who had died. Their sacrifices really made me step back, and put what had happened to me in perspective. Yes, my ankle was broken, but that was dwarfed by what those soldiers had given. I just thought, “Dude, suck it up. Drive the race car.”
In practice, we were pretty fast. Not the fastest, but up there. It was during practice that the weekend nearly ended before it began. I ran over something with the car during a run. The left rear tire went flat. I spun out in Turn One, which is the fastest, most treacherous part of Pocono to spin out in. Somehow, I kept the car off the wall. I’ll never forget that. If I would have wrecked there — well, let’s simply say that our backup car was nowhere near what our primary car was.
The day of the race, I decided not to take any drugs. I just didn’t feel good about doing that because of how it might affect my ability to drive. When the race got underway, we found ourselves running right around contention in eighth place or so.
A strategic decision my team made that afternoon wound up playing a crucial role in the outcome of the race.
Kurt Busch and I were teammates at the time. We were watching the weather, and saw that there was rain about three or four minutes away. We pitted right as we saw the rain was about to hit.
Pocono is a track that’s so big, you can pit and not lose a lap. While we were on pit road, sure enough, it started pouring. The yellow came out. But just behind those rain clouds, we could see that there was an opening of sun. We knew that the race would get back going, and that it would just be a short delay. My ankle really needed it. The rain break served almost like a halfway break, and it allowed me to ice up and go again.
When it was over, we had four brand new tires. We had a full tank of gas. The rest of the field didn’t. They had to pit as soon as the race went back green.
That put us up front.
Four days after I had wrecked at Road Atlanta, we won at Pocono.
It meant a lot to me personally to be able to overcome everything I’d gone through that week. Winning that race meant as much to me as anything else I’ve ever accomplished — maybe more — because I knew what went with it.
A BULLET DODGED
There’s a funny epilogue to all of this.
Jimmie Johnson was also there when I wrecked at Road Atlanta. And as he explained it, after I’d been airlifted out, the track personnel had to replace the wall where I’d hit so they could get back to testing again. When they went to work on the wall, right where my wrecked car was resting, there was a huge copperhead snake, just sitting there.
I don’t know if it was because of all of the commotion after the wreck, but for whatever reason, in the aftermath of the crash, none of us had seen it.
Can you imagine if I’d survived that wreck, gotten out of the car, and then gotten bitten by that damn snake?
What a story that would have made.
It came at the same raceway we’re at this week: Pocono.