Kevin Harvick was the favorite, Jeff Gordon the sentimental favorite, Martin Truex Jr. the underdog and Kyle Busch the new Kyle Busch.
Had the old Kyle Busch won the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship Sunday, cheers would have been sparse, or at least more sparse than they were at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Busch is the 2015 Sprint Cup champion. And no matter what you think about him, give him this. As much as anybody on the track, he earned this.
After his victory there were fireworks, skid marks and, from beneath the tires of his Toyota, smoke.
“This is so cool!” Busch screamed at the end of a post-race, post-championship interview.
It was so cool. Jeff Gordon, who ran his final race and finished sixth, approached Busch, hugged him tightly and pulled him close.
Later, Gordon would praise Busch’s talent. He said Busch was more talented than even he was. But until this season he said Busch didn’t know how to be patient. When Busch returned after missing the first 11 races, says Gordon, he was a better driver.
A baseball analogy: Busch learned not to rely solely on his 95 mph fastball. He learned to set it up. So when he threw it, it looked even faster.
In seasons past Busch was more likely to blow than his engine was. Four years ago he was caught driving a high performance car 128 mph on a N.C. street with a 45 mph speed limit, and his license was suspended.
His talent was unquestioned. But he couldn’t harness it. Although he made the Chase the last 10 years he never finished better than fourth. A football analogy: He was the quarterback who, despite tremendous skill, was never able to parlay his gifts into the Super Bowl.
We all are offered opportunities to change, and this season Busch took advantage of his.
Briefly, this is what happened.
Six months ago Busch and his wife, Samantha, had a son, Brexton.
Eight months ago Busch hit a Daytona International Speedway wall at the season’s first Xfinity race, broke his right leg and left foot, and was shipped to a hospital. Busch had been built for speed. What’s as slow as rehabilitation?
Busch missed the season’s first 11 races. So he needed to be good, quickly, and he was. He won his fifth race back and then he won three of the next four.
Again, the championship was Busch’s first. The three drivers against whom he competed Sunday were 44 years old (Gordon), 39 (Kevin Harvick) and 35 (Martin Truex Jr.). Busch is a mere 30. And now that he knows what he can do, why wouldn’t he be favored to do it again?
He was offered a chance to come undone late Sunday. With 11 laps to go, the race was his. And then a caution was called for debris on the track. The debris looked like a crushed water bottle.
Busch calmly took off on the restart as if propelled. He was fast and smooth and nobody was going to catch him.
Before Busch turned mature and perhaps nice, he was interesting. He embraced the bad guy role, had fun with it, and never required validation from fans. If his words were scripted, he had a really good writer.
Although Harvick was the favorite Sunday, Busch probably should have been. The drivers were introduced by the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s Bruce Buffer, the veteran voice of the octagon.
Buffer stretched the syllables and when he got to Busch he latched onto Busch’s nickname. He introduced Busch as “Rowdy,” making the word last.
Rowdy might not be so rowdy anymore. But Buffer said it as if he meant it. The other drivers merely had names.