Kyle Busch is as close as he’s ever been to a NASCAR Chase championship.
Long considered one of the sport’s most talented drivers, Busch needs only to finish ahead of the three other Chase finalists – Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the title is his.
It’s the first time Busch, 30, has been in this position, despite having been a Chase participant for 10 consecutive seasons, during which he’s been among NASCAR’s most consistent winners and volatile personalities.
“You see it in sports where great players in the NFL get a chance to win a Super Bowl, and a lot of them don’t get to,” said Joe Gibbs, Busch’s team owner at Joe Gibbs Racing. “Over here I think it’s very similar. For (Busch), I think everybody looks at the championship as the way you’re judged about your past, and I think it would be a big deal and a big statement for him.”
Busch’s arrival on the championship’s doorstep also came in a most unlikely fashion. During the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Busch’s Toyota crashed into an interior wall. He broke his right leg and left foot, forcing him to miss the first 11 races of the Cup season.
“It’s a great story,” said Gibbs. “Think about what happened to us in Daytona, and to come back and be (at Homestead), I certainly think it was a huge effort on (Busch’s) part. The way he approached everything when he came back was kind of unbelievable.”
Busch’s comeback began in his Daytona Beach hospital room. During a visit from NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton, Busch began thinking about how soon he might return, and whether he’d be eligible to compete for a spot in the Chase. A NASCAR rule stipulates that a driver must compete in every race to have a shot at qualifying for the Chase.
“We were talking with (Helton) about what’s the scenario going to be with me coming back,” Busch said. “Am I still going to be eligible for (the Chase)? They didn’t have any clue at that point. Yeah, we were definitely ahead of the game. We were pre-planning for sure.”
NASCAR granted Busch a waiver that allowed him to be eligible for the Chase despite missing those 11 races. He would, however, still have to satisfy the other requirements of winning at least one race and finishing inside the top 30 in the points standings.
Before Busch could return, however, he had to mend. That took time and some grueling physical therapy.
“I’ve never been injured that bad in my life, so I didn’t really know what to expect or know what it was going to be about,” said Busch. “But it’s something you don’t really want to have to go through, that’s for sure.”
Busch returned for May’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he finished 11th. After three more nondescript starts at Dover, Pocono and Michigan, Busch’s season took a turn.
It started with a victory at Sonoma. After finishing 17th at Daytona’s July race, Busch ran off three consecutive victories at Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis.
Three weeks after his victory at Indy – and in just his 12th race back – Busch cracked the top 30 after finishing 11th at Michigan. He was in the Chase.
Busch’s performance during this postseason has lacked the bad luck and poor showings that have marked his previous appearances in the Chase. Although he hasn’t won a Chase race, he’s stayed out of trouble on the track and been consistent enough to land a spot in the final four.
“Now, you could look at that and he could feel like, hey, everything is kind of going against him,” Gibbs said of Busch’s previous postseason. “But I think it was other things. I think he was ready. I think he was ready last year. But in this sport we all know there are a lot of things that can happen.”
Busch hasn’t always reacted well to adversity. He’s become well known for chirping unpleasantries over his radio and hasn’t been hesitant to let the media know how things work against him when he’s come up short on the track.
But Busch has navigated through his injury and the Chase with the calming influences of his wife, Samantha, and their young son, Brexton, who was born May 18.
“Sam has a big influence on him,” Gibbs said. “The baby certainly does. You know, I joked with him on the plane, the baby was back there crying, and I said, sounds just like you in the car.
“For the last couple of years, you can tell he reacts in the car differently. He seems to have more of a patience, willing to think through things. He’s still very aggressive, but I think also the way he deals with things, he’s much more even now. That’s part of growing up, all those other family things. But I think he definitely now is in a different place than he was 10 years ago.”
Saturday marked nine months to the day that Busch was injured at Daytona.
“We hope to have an enjoyable end to the year,” Busch said.
NASCAR’s Chase is down to four drivers as the season ends Sunday with the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The best finisher of the four – Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – will win the championship.
No. 18 Toyota
Storyline: Missed first 11 races of the season after breaking leg and foot at Daytona.
No. 24 Chevy
Storyline: Seeking fifth championship before he retires at end of season.
No. 4 Chevy
Storyline: Has had dominant car for much of the season, going after second consecutive championship.
Martin Truex Jr.
No. 78 Chevy
Storyline: Only driver for small Furniture Row Racing, based in Colorado.