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As ambassador of safety, Kyle Busch returns to Daytona

For the first time since a February crash left him injured, Kyle Busch is back at Daytona.

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Acting as NASCAR's safety advocate wasn't a role Kyle Busch asked for. It was just thrust upon him following a harrowing February crash at Daytona International Speedway where he slammed into an unprotected concrete wall toward the bottom of Turn 1.

The contact, nearly head-on, broke Busch's right leg and left foot and sidelined him for the first 11 Sprint Cup races before returning in May. Almost instantly following the crash a ripple effect took hold. Every NASCAR track began reexamining its safety measures, while drivers spoke out ever louder about the need for every wall surrounding the racing surface to be covered with SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers.

"I never really wanted to be the advocate or the spearhead of the safety initiative," Busch said Saturday at Daytona. "But it seems as though I've kind of taken on that role just through my injury that I had. There's a lot of improvements that all these race tracks can make. I say that because there's never a situation, us being race car drivers and crashing and what not, that you can plan for."

For the first time since his accident, Busch is back at Daytona, the site of Sunday night's Coke Zero 400. And the track he returns to is significantly different from the one he exited in the back of an ambulance four and a half months ago.

Heeding the calls of drivers, Daytona installed additional SAFER barriers in three areas and will add more before February's Daytona 500. Track workers also removed large sections of grass and laid down more than 200,000 square feet of asphalt to give drivers a better chance of recovery should they spin.

Accompanied by NASCAR and track officials, Busch toured the modifications on Friday. What he saw impressed him. But as he knows firsthand, more can always be done.

"They wanted to fix it and they wanted to do everything they could do in their power to make sure everything was done right here at the speedway and to make it first class," Busch said. "I think they've done that. I think there's certainly always room for improvements -- any facility you go to, I feel like there's room for improvement. Seeing those done here at Daytona was really good.

"You've always got to plan for the worst. We think about it and you think about the SAFER barriers running along the inside walls in the corners because we've probably never really hit there before, but in all reality it just hasn't happened yet."

One thing Busch emphasized to NASCAR during his inspection was his preference to remove any grass areas around the surface.

Although aesthetically pleasing, grass tends to catch cars when parts dig into the sod, causing drivers to flip. Such a thing occurred during the IndyCar race last Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, when Ryan Briscoe spun through the grass-covered tri-oval and somersaulted after a wheel dug in.

"We have absolutely no reason to have grass at any of these facilities," Busch said. "I think that needs to be one of the next biggest pushes that we can all have."

A reminder of why it's important to remain vigilant regarding safety, especially at Daytona where drivers run in tight packs just inches apart running speeds exceeding 200 mph, was served Friday.

That was when a tap by Brad Keselowski turned Busch just nine minutes into the weekend's first practice. With those behind him nowhere to escape, what unfolded was the predictable multi-car crash associated with restrictor-plate racing.

In the aftermath a total of 10 drivers, including Busch, had to pull out their backup cars for Sunday's race. None of those involved, however, were injured. Keselowski accepted responsibility for the wreck, but that was of little consequence to Busch.

"It's practice. You don't need to be up a guy's left rear," Busch said. "I rolled out and got out of the gas I don't know how many times during that session just to not run into the car in front of me just because it's not that time of the game to go.

"There's room to lift and sometimes people don't."

Because he had to change to a backup, Busch will forfeit his 13th starting position and have to drop to the rear of the field. Not that where you start matters much at Daytona.

It was, though, an unceremonious welcome back for driver whose last trip to Daytona also ended with a crumpled car.

"I might have another one (Sunday) night," Busch said. "It's just the way this place is and the way these cars run so close together. I mean, it's nothing to joke about I guess, but it just sucks it happened."