In the trophy case at Kyle Busch Motorsports, squeezed in between a pair of trophies signifying two of Busch’s lower series wins, there sits a much more significant piece of metal.
It’s a Purple Heart, accompanied by a letter from its previous owner — Chris Brunelle — explaining why it deserved to be in Busch’s hands instead of his.
And to hear Brunelle tell it, it’s quite a story.
Brunelle served in the military for 23 years — first in the Marines and later the National Guard. He fought in the first Gulf War and made stops in places like Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Oman during his career.
But it was in Iraq — on March 30, 2005 — when Brunelle’s life changed forever.
Two months into his second tour there, Brunelle was traveling in a Humvee north of Taji (near Baghdad) when a suicide bomber used a car bomb to blow up Brunelle’s vehicle.
The explosion and impact killed Brunelle’s gunner — Spc. Eric Toth — and sent the Humvee into the air. It also badly burned another occupant, Ricky Brooks. Though Brunelle was unconscious at the time, he later learned the Humvee rolled five times after traveling 25-30 feet in the air.
Another unit, approximately 45 seconds up the road from Brunelle, immediately turned around to come back. They found Brunelle lying in the road, which was remarkable since the vehicle had heavy doors that can only be opened from the inside. To this day, Brunelle has no explanation for how he was ejected but believes it was divine intervention.
After being “burned up pretty bad,” Brunelle was sent to Fort Knox, Ky. to recover physically. But mentally, the wounds were still raw.
As time went on, Brunelle suffered badly from post traumatic stress disorder and spiraled downward while trying to handle with it on his own. He turned to drinking, dealt with marriage problems and constantly felt scared — even of sleeping, since he knew as soon as he closed his eyes, he would relive the moment that he wished to escape.
One day, while sitting outside at the bar he’d built outside his home, Brunelle decided to end his life.
“I said, ‘The hell with it,’” he said. “I’m gonna finish this. I’m going to drink this beer and then I’m going to end it all. I’m done fighting and arguing. This is fighting a fight you can’t win.”
By an incredible coincidence, it was then that one of his twin daughters came outside.
“Daddy, I just want to tell you I love you,” she said.
That calmed Brunelle down enough that he decided not to go through with the suicide plan. Shaken, he turned on the TV — to ESPN or FOX, he can’t remember which — and saw a story that resonated with him.
It was a story about how Kyle Busch had gotten in a career-threatening accident at Daytona, only to push through rehab, walk again and get back in the car for the NASCAR All-Star Race.
To this day, Brunelle has never met Busch. But he insists Busch saved his life.
“I’ve seen a lot of people hurt and messed up, so you grow immune to stuff like that,” Brunelle said. “But I saw that story and the Good Lord meant for me to see it that day. It made something click inside. It made me think. And from that day on, it’s been different.”
So as a gesture of his appreciation for Busch’s inspiration, Brunelle decided to send Busch his Purple Heart.
Like packages and fan mail tend to do, Brunelle’s parcel containing the Purple Heart sat in a bin at Joe Gibbs Racing for a time before eventually reaching Busch.
Steve Sarcinella, Samantha Busch’s dad and Busch’s father in law, was at the driver’s home shortly after the package had been opened and was shocked by what he saw.
“Kyle said, ‘Steve, what’s this?’” Sarcinella recalled. “I said, ‘That’s a Purple Heart! Where did you get this? Do you know how big a Purple Heart is?’”
Busch had no idea what to do with it, so Sarcinella called a neighbor who suggested Busch put it on display at his race shop. That sounded like the most appropriate way to handle such an honor, so they put it in the trophy case at KBM. Sarcinella decided to call Brunelle and tell him about what happened.
That was the first time Brunelle and Sarcinella spoke, but it was far from the last. On a daily basis since then — for more than two years — Sarcinella has either called or texted Brunelle to see how he’s doing, send a Bible verse or pass along a motivational quote.
“He doesn’t have to do it, but he does it,” Brunelle said. “If it hadn’t been for them two, I’d probably be a statistic right now.”
Sarcinella hosted Brunelle at the Kentucky race last year and also had him come visit the race shop in North Carolina. He was moved by what Brunelle has gone through and figured it wasn’t much of an inconvenience to reach out to someone who could use some support each day.
“God says if we can help just one person, we’re doing good, aren’t we?” Sarcinella said. “If that’s all I’m put on this Earth for, is to help Chris, then so be it.”
So why is this story coming out now? Brunelle, now 47, is intensely loyal to Busch and Sarcinella for their respective roles in changing the direction of his life, and it bothers him greatly when people talk poorly about Busch.
That’s why, when he heard a reporter talking about Busch on Sirius/XM Radio recently, he reached out with an email in hopes of sharing his story.
“People don’t understand what these guys have done,” Brunelle said. “People want to see the bad and no one wants to see the good. I’ve seen so much bad in my life.”
Brunelle said he has no motivations other than to tell people his story about how Busch inspired him and Sarcinella took it from there. Their collective actions, Brunelle said, “literally saved my life.”
“It’s about doing what’s right,” Brunelle said of sharing his story. “I don’t want nothing. I just want people to know what these guys have done.”