Kyle Busch watched February’s Daytona 500 from a hospital bed.
He left Homestead-Miami in November a Sprint Cup champion.
That reality will be hard for some fans to accept, a broken leg and a broken foot making Busch the first driver since Richard Petty in 1971 to win NASCAR’s most prestigious title while missing races. A point system that was formerly based on consistency crowned a Chase champion Sunday that missed three months of the 2015 season recovering – roughly a third of the schedule. But no matter what position you take on the Busch debate there’s no question the 30-year-old’s comeback is one of the most impressive we’ve seen on the NASCAR circuit in modern history.
“I don't know that anybody could have ever dreamt of this year, to have dreamt of my career path the way it's kind of gone,” he said after being showered with championship champagne. “I was like, man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car [after getting injured at Daytona]. Fortunately, I was able to put it all back together. But it did worry me.”
Keep in mind Busch, after earning a special exemption from NASCAR to be Chase eligible, needed to charge into the top 30 in points with only 15 races left in the regular season. He needed to learn a new rules package, one that gave veterans like Tony Stewart fits and win at least one race after relearning how to do things like walking over three months. Folks, I’ve broken an ankle in multiple places and I know firsthand the difficult and painful physical therapy Busch went through. Pushing through it all to get back in the car by Memorial Day a mere three months after slamming into Daytona’s SAFER Barrier was no small feat. Stewart, who himself had a similar injury, took nearly two years to get back to 100 percent.
“The rehab and everything, it was really, really hard. It's amazing how much you lose in muscle mass,” Busch said of his injuries. “You felt limp, like you had no control over anything down there.”
“We just kept powering through.”
But it’s not just physical limitations Busch needed to overcome. Long a victim of mental breakdowns in crunch time he had to develop into a leader of the No. 18 team. A driver known for his temper tantrums grew up, first child Brexton combining with the support of family to give Busch a new perspective on life. Suddenly, a man once reviled by both the fan base and inside the garage was relabeled a more even-keeled personality.
Those changes served Busch well during a late-race twist that could have easily sparked his temper. A debris caution called with just nine laps remaining bunched up the field and forced his pit crew to keep the No. 18 team ahead of all challengers. Even after the stop the three other drivers in title contention were close enough that a poor restart or a loss of focus would ruin things for Busch. The “old Kyle” would have lost his cool. This time?
“I just knew the greater picture,” Busch said. “I expected [a late yellow]. I didn’t know when it was going to come… with 50 to go, 40 to go, 30, 10. I just had my mindset that if it did go green to the end, great, and if it didn’t, I just kept continuing to think about how much car was driving to make sure I gave the right information… in order to get us ready to win the race.”
Win he did, both at Homestead and in life with the ironclad support received from owner Joe Gibbs, manufacturer Toyota (who won their first Cup championship Sunday) and even bad boy brother Kurt. No wonder why the list of drivers congratulating him in Victory Lane was long and continuous.
The final chapter of this weird Chase saw Jeff Gordon as the sentimental favorite, Martin Truex, Jr. as the Cinderella fairy tale while Kevin Harvick, the sport’s reigning champ had the best season on paper. But Busch’s story was one of an athlete triumphing through adversity, turning injury into an opportunity to better himself both on and off the track.
“With all he’s been through this year,” said Gordon. “Nobody is more deserving than him.”
“There’s been a lot of change in myself,” Busch added. “My family and my team. Yet I think there’s probably still more to go. Looking forward to that experience.”
I’d look forward to seeing Busch holding the trophy again at Homestead-Miami sometime soon, too. At 30 years old, his prime dead ahead this title could be the first of many.
Through The Gears we go….
FIRST GEAR: The championship drama that wasn’t.
Much was made about NASCAR’s Final Four and the parity between them. Indeed, predictions heading into Homestead made the title race seem a bit of a crapshoot. But Busch had this one in hand through much of the race’s second half. If not for the final yellow, he would have won by nearly six seconds over Harvick while the other two contenders, Gordon and Truex battled simply to stay inside the top 10.
It was a shame for NASCAR as a rain-delayed start led to a better audience with NBC’s Football Night In America pushed back for the race. NFL fans, though were treated to zero on-track passes for the lead outside of restarts, relatively single-file competition due to the disappointing 2015 rules package and Busch setting himself on championship cruise control. There were only seven cautions, just two for accidents and just 19 lead-lap finishers on a night the competition simply spread out.
That’s not to say each contender didn’t try. Truex and his crew chief tried a two-tire strategy to lead after a mid-race caution (it failed). Harvick and Gordon raced Busch hard on several restarts. But there was an inevitability to this one unlike the 2014 Homestead race, a nail-biter until the final few laps. It just goes to show no matter how much NASCAR CEO Brian France looks to “guarantee” Game 7 moments they can’t always happen.
SECOND GEAR: Second place is the first loser.
Harvick, unable to run down Busch still completed one of the better seasons in NASCAR history. His three wins were combined with 13 runner-up finishes, a total that puts him in rarified air. That 44% top-two clip meant he was running first or second virtually every other week while leading a career high 2,294 laps.
“You always want to win, but I’ve learned not to get greedy,” Harvick said, gracious in defeat. “After last year, I felt like we had everything go our way way and tonight, it didn’t go our way.”
Still, Harvick will have to look back and feel this year was one that got away. He’s 40 years old (teammate Stewart is retiring next year at 45) so who knows how many more title chances are left? Harvick had a shot to post back-to-back titles and would have won the regular season points title without a Chase. Joey Logano was the only one in the same stratosphere in terms of consistency.
Could you imagine if those 13 second-place runs were turned into wins? That would have set a modern-era record and cemented Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers as a Hall of Fame driver/crew chief combination. Instead, at Homestead they just didn’t have it and suddenly “The Closer” is looking like he’s forgotten how to do it.
THIRD GEAR: Gordon’s great career.
No, that “John Elway” moment didn’t come together for one of NASCAR’s best drivers ever. Gordon, in position to go out on top never really got the handle on this Homestead track when the sun went down. But there’s no reason for him to hang his head after a week worth of tributes that included a wonderfully narrated piece by Jimmie Johnson. Respected throughout the garage, his pre-race drive included every crew member on pit road lining up to either wave or touch the car of the man whose success helped ensure they have jobs.
“It’s absolutely been a dream come true,” Gordon said. “To get an opportunity to race at this level, to have the success that I’ve had, to have the sponsors that we’ve had and to have the fans that we have.”
The final numbers for Gordon absolutely leave him as one of the sport’s best. 93 wins are third all-time, trailing only David Pearson and Richard Petty. Four titles trails just Johnson, Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (Some would argue Gordon “has more” as he would have won more than two without NASCAR’s playoff format). His five Brickyard 400 wins lead all drivers; three Daytona 500s are more than respectable. Most importantly his success with Hendrick Motorsports ushered in an entire era of multi-car teams while transitioning the sport to partnerships with major Fortune 500 companies. NASCAR clearly grew with Gordon; the question is if it can keep growing now that he transitions into the FOX Broadcast booth instead.
FOURTH GEAR: Who has offseason momentum?
Of course it’s early to look at 2016 but there are several drivers who showed well at Homestead. Denny Hamlin won the pole, charged back from three laps down at one point and wound up with a top-10 finish. The No. 11 team showed strong during the Chase and Hamlin is entering a potential contract year.
Team Penske, despite tough defeats for Logano and Keselowski appeared to be the best team during the season’s second half. Moving Ryan Blaney up to full-time competition with the Wood Brothers adds a de facto third effort that could help them resource-wise in battles against organizations twice their size.
Then there’s Kyle Larson, a sophomore slump nearly defeated with a surprise season-ending win. Larson himself tweeted the No. 42 car, fastest on-track before that final caution would have been in Victory Lane if not for the controversial debris call. Larson, the Homestead XFINITY Series winner, showed improvement over the season’s final two months and may have saved crew chief Chris Heroy’s job. He’ll spar with rookie Chase Elliott as youngsters look to replace Gordon on NASCAR’s superstar hierarchy.
Other finales Sunday included Clint Bowyer and David Ragan wrapping up full-time operations for Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a touch ironic that Bowyer, whose intentional spin at Richmond two years ago started the downfall of this team wrecked on his own midrace at Homestead to finish dead last. “Appreciate the hard work and effort all these years,” he said afterwards. “But unfortunately, it’s over.” Michael Waltrip may run February’s Daytona 500 with the program before selling the building and auctioning off equipment by April 2016… Without the pomp and circumstance of Gordon another racing champion may have wrapped up his NASCAR career. Sam Hornish, Jr. hit the wall early driving for the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford and was never a factor, running 25th. The former Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champ has now failed twice at transferring his skills into Cup. Hornish ran all 36 races this season without a top-five finish and finds himself unemployed for 2016… The driver who won the most races captured none of the championships across NASCAR’s top three series this year. Joey Logano won six times on the Cup tour but didn’t even make the Final Four after the infamous contact with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. Over in the XFINITY division several Cup drivers won far more than series regulars making Chris Buescher’s championship somewhat of an afterthought. And in Trucks, Matt Crafton won a career-high six times only to stumble through too many DNFs in handing the title to 19-year-old Erik Jones… Brett Moffitt was named Sprint Cup’s Rookie of the Year over Matt DiBenedetto. Moffitt earned one top-10 finish on the year.