Kyle Busch did the unthinkable and came back to win the Sprint Cup championship on Sunday night in Homestead. After missing the first 11 races with a broken leg and broken foot to begin the season due to a vicious crash, the 30-year-old came back to win the trophy just nine months later.
Nine months ago Busch just wanted to walk, nonetheless get back into his No. 18 machine. With the win on Sunday night, Busch did something that he had never done before and won his first Cup title.
Busch was running third until a late race caution with 11 laps to go. He had nearly a 10-second lead on his closest competition for the championship, Kevin Harvick. That lead was erased when the lead lap cars came down pit road for the final pit stop of the 2015 season.
It was then where race leader, Brad Keselowski allowed Busch the opportunity to start on his outside with Harvick on the bumper of the No. 18. By Turn 1, Busch had cleared Keselowski and set sail for the victory.
“This is a dream of a lifetime, a dream come true,” Busch said after hopping out of his car. “It’s something that happens every so often. I just can’t believe it with everything that happened this year. All of the turmoil and the things that I want through, that my wife went through, that my family went through. This championship is all of these guys and everyone who sacrificed to get me here.”
It was nine months ago to the day that Busch was watching the Daytona 500 on a television set in a Daytona hospital. The injury cost him two and a half months of his racing career. Through the painful rehabilitation it allowed Busch to put his focus toward getting back into the race car.
“I guess you’re a lot tougher than you really realize whether it’s physically and mentally,” Busch said. “I had to put everything I had into rehab and everything I had into being able to walk and get through everything that I was going through.”
Busch is the first driver in the modern era to win a championship after missing several races. Winning Homestead was the first race in the Chase that Busch has ever won while still being in the Chase. He won the right race in doing so.
His previous best finish in the Cup standings was fourth in 2013. This is Toyota’s first Cup championship since being a part of the series in 2007. It is also the fourth championship for Joe Gibbs Racing and the first since 2005 when Tony Stewart won the title.
The man atop the pit box and leading the charge for Busch was crew chief, Adam Stevens. It was Stevens first year at the helm of the No. 18 team, but the two had plenty of prior experience working together in the Xfinity Series. The chemistry the two have shown since Busch returned in the Coca-Cola 600 has been like no other that Busch has had in his career and led the team to their first title.
“I leaned on Kyle Busch pretty heavy,” Stevens said on how he was able to win the title in his first year. “You’ve, just got to get him close, that’s the beauty of Kyle. His talent, his skill and his dedication, his feedback is so good. I think anybody could have adjusted on his car today.”
The runner-up in the championship standings was the aforementioned Harvick. The defending champion did not have the speed in his No. 4 Chevrolet all night compared to Busch. Though leading 46 laps, compared to Busch’s 41, Harvick was unable to keep up the adjustments throughout the race.
“We were just struggling all night,” Harvick said of his second-place effort. “We had a lot of trouble getting up off the corner and putting the power down. The longer the run went, the looser we would get. I’ve learned not to get greedy after last year when everything seemed to go our way.”
Harvick finished second, 13 times in 2015, a modern era record. Second seemed to be one of the themes to Harvick’s 2015 season. There is no doubt that in 2016, Harvick will come out just as strong as he has in the previous two seasons with Rodney Childress and crew.
Jeff Gordon finished in sixth-place and third in the championship standings. After having a disappointing first 26 races, the No. 24 team rebounded during the Chase to give Gordon the opportunity to compete for a championship in his farewell race.
Gordon struggled throughout much of the 400-mile event. He hovered around the 10th position all night, after leading nine laps early on. On the final restart of the race Gordon went from 10th to sixth passing four cars around the outside. In the end it wasn’t enough to give Gordon a fifth title, but his legacy isn’t tarnished by one missed opportunity at a championship.
“Who would have though coming from Indiana as a Sprint car driver that could come south to North Carolina and race for people like Bill Davis and then get the opportunity to work with the greatest owner in the Cup series that there has ever been and that’s Rick Hendrick,” Gordon said. He’s way more than a car owner to me. I’m so appreciative, it’s been the most amazing experience. I’m a little disappointed. I thought going into today’s race we had something for them. I think when the sun went down we were missing a little something and just didn’t quite have it when the sun went down. I love the effort and we shower what we were made of right there at the end by climbing up to sixth.”
“I’m just really proud and excited not just the way that we ran this weekend, and not this year, but my whole career. It felt so good to see Rick Hendrick. I wanted to give him that race helmet. I designed that helmet with the intent of giving it to him. I was so happy to have that moment getting out of the car with him.”
Martin Truex, Jr. was the fourth member of the championship race and struggled to a 12th-place finish in Homestead.
For the majority of the 400 miles, the No. 78 was not in the prime position and had about a 12th-place car. Crew chief Cole Pearn tried a number of different strategies to get the car out front, but the car would not react the way he wanted it to. For all that Truex has overcome in the past season there was no reason for him to be disappointed and be optimistic about the future at Furniture Row Racing.
“We came a long way as a group,” Truex said. “We have a lot to be proud of as a team and a lot to build on for next year. We are a little disappointed about the weekend. We were really excited and optimistic coming into this weekend with an opportunity. We just could never get the car to react to anything that we wanted it to do. I’m just really proud to work with this group of guys, they are a special group. If we can keep it together I think we can go a long way for a long time.”
As the NASCAR season has come to an end, it had a new face holding the top trophy. It is the fifth different driver to win the championship in the last five years.
With only 82 days until cars are back on track at Daytona, it will be an offseason of regrouping and building to go for nine more months in 2016. Busch is the 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion.