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‘A major milestone': Crew chief Adam Stevens recalls Kyle Busch’s 2015 win at Sonoma

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Axalta "We Paint Winners" 400 - Qualifying

LONG POND, PA - JUNE 03: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s 75th Anniversary Toyota, talks with his crew chief Adam Stevens during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway on June 3, 2016 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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Don’t call it a comeback, crew chief Adam Stevens says about Kyle Busch’s stunner at Sonoma Raceway last year.

Or at least, don’t call it a comeback starting with the victory that permanently changed the tenor and trajectory of a 2015 Sprint Cup season that began with a broken right leg and fractured left foot the day before the Daytona 500.

“The comeback began before Kyle left the hospital in Daytona,” Stevens told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “When he committed himself to returning and doing all the hard things he was going to have to do to get his body back in shape to be able to drive a race car again. That’s when it really began.

“The win was a huge, huge part of everything we had to do to make it into the Chase. … There was still a lot of work that we had to do to make the Chase. Certainly the biggest hurdle of that whole thing was winning a race. So in that aspect, I wouldn’t say that’s where the comeback began, but it was certainly a major milestone in the comeback.”

In his return to Sonoma this weekend as the defending race winner and series champion, Busch is on much firmer ground. The 31-year-old virtually has qualified for the playoffs with three victories in the first 15 races. His No. 18 Toyota team consistently has been fast while enjoying the continuity of personnel, particularly behind the wheel.

Circumstances were much different on his last trip to the 1.99-mile road course in the wine country of Northern California.

To win his first Sprint Cup title, Busch had to overcome missing the first 11 races of the season because of injuries sustained in a crash during the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway. NASCAR granted a waiver allowing Busch to make the playoffs despite not starting every race, but he still needed a win – along with cracking the top 30 in points.

In the first four races of his return last season, Busch twice finished outside the top 35 – leaving him a staggering 173 points behind 30th in the points standings and only 11 races to close the margin before the regular season.

For Stevens and team, the task was daunting.

“It’s a huge gap,” he said. “We dug the hole deeper.”

Stevens quickly assembled a plan to keep tabs on the deficit to 30th and translated it into what Busch’s average finish needed to be to overcome the margin.

“Every week, I tried to glance at that and keep that in perspective,” he said. “If you were having not your best weekend, there’s no point in making it worse trying to swing for the fence when really what you need is that average finish.”

But the main challenge still would be winning – and that didn’t seem certain until Sonoma.

“You know you can average a 15th-place finish, but that’s well within the capability of a Joe Gibbs Racing team,” Stevens said. “That’s a matter of not making mistakes. Winning a race in this series is tough. For a rookie crew chief and first-year team, it’s even tougher. Not having past history to know where you stack up and know how it’s all going to work out, that was by far the biggest hurdle we had to cross. Being able to jump that hurdle fairly early in the process lets you change the focus and relieve a major burden from the team going forward.

“Trying to predict if you get a win, there’s absolutely no guarantee that’s going to happen. It’s hard to say we’re going to score the points we need every weekend, and by the way, we need to win a race. Those two things don’t always work together. But when you can pull one of them out of the equation, that’s a lot more easy to achieve.”

The degree of difficulty was compounded by the relative inexperience of Stevens and team. Though he and much of the crew had notched 19 victories with Busch in the Xfinity Series, its first year in Cup began with a trial by fire.

But Stevens said it did have the team battle-tested when Busch finally was behind the wheel after a nearly three-month layoff.

“We had had a variety of experiences that a lot of teams don’t get to have,” Stevens said. “Not all of them would we choose to have again, but still you learn from those things and grow as a teammate and an individual through them. Then when you’re faced with the next adverse situation, you’re probably a little bit quicker to make a decision and more often going to make a correct decision and get through it.”

The toughest task for Stevens was working with three drivers (Matt Crafton, David Ragan, Erik Jones) who provided varying levels and styles of communication.

“Trying to relay that feedback into changes that were going to help the car for how they wanted to drive it” was tough, Stevens said. “With the series itself being new to me at that point and the cars and the rules, throw in the variable of getting someone else’s feedback that I’m not used to kind of made you approach the weekend in a different way.

“(It) made you think about things at a different level and a different type of feedback that we were getting from all the guys who helped us out, and being able to readapt that to Kyle.”

The transition rapidly evened out after Sonoma, which kicked off a stretch of three victories in four races for Busch that catapulted him into title contention.

His car mostly has seemed unstoppable since then … until this year’s run-up to Sonoma.

Busch has finished outside the top 30 in the past four consecutive races.

“There’s concerns over the finishes but not concerns over the job we’ve been doing or the cars we put on the racetrack,” Stevens said. “I feel we’ve had competitive cars. There’s been a couple of situations where we’ve probably experimented some and tried to learn things that maybe didn’t pan out, but by and large, I feel like our program is headed in a positive direction. Hopefully, we can put some races together soon to show everybody that.”

It took only one race last year.