Kyle Busch, whose season was nearly derailed before it ever got started, claimed his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship Sunday, winning the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the process.
Busch finished well ahead of his three remaining Chase rivals in the Chase in the race, which was what he was required to do to win the title. The 2014 champion, Kevin Harvick, was second, 1.553 seconds behind. Jeff Gordon, the sentimental favorite for the title in his final season, was sixth and Martin Truex Jr. 12th.
Brad Keselowski and two other non-Chase drivers – Joey Logano and Kyle Larson – finished third through fifth.
“It’s pretty unbelievable!” Busch said. “It’s a dream of a lifetime, a dream come true and something that only happens every so often. I just can’t believe with everything that happened this year and all the turmoil, all the things that I went through.”
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Busch missed the first 11 Cup races of the season after breaking his right leg and left foot during a wreck in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
NASCAR granted Busch a waiver that allowed him to be eligible to qualify 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.
He was able to do that. So, after essentially giving the rest of the drivers in the Cup series an 11-race head start, he’s the champion.
“I guess you’re a lot tougher than you really realize – whether it’s physically and mentally – but I had to put everything I had into rehab and everything I had into being able to walk and to get through everything that I was going through,” Busch said of his time away from racing. “My wife (Samantha) was there to power me through, and my dog, Lucy, was barking at me to get me through it too.”
Samantha gave birth to their first child, Brexton, in May.
“There’s certainly a lot of things in life that I don’t know that you’ll ever fully understand,” Busch said. “And this year is certainly one of those for myself, but it’s so great to be in this spot right now and to count the blessings that we have.”
Busch entered the Chase on the strength of a summertime stretch that saw him win four races in a five-week stretch. Although he hadn’t won a race in the Chase, he had performed solidly enough to be one of the four to make it to the championship round.
Busch started third Sunday and kept his No. 18 Toyota near or at the front for the entire race, which was delayed by rain for 96 minutes.
He would lead 41 laps, taking the lead on a pivotal restart with seven laps remaining.
Busch came out of the pits second behind Keselowski. Busch said he was surprised that Keselowski elected to start on the inside.
“Yeah, I don’t really know if there was a right (decision) or a wrong one to be honest,” said Keselowski. “We just weren’t fast enough and I don’t think it would have mattered either way.”
Busch went to the front immediately, Harvick right behind. But Harvick was unable to make up any ground. The race and the title were Busch’s.
“I knew it was time to go,” Busch said of the restart. “I don’t know why Brad chose the bottom, but he gave me the top and I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ It did put Harvick behind me so I knew I just had to protect whatever he tried to do -- if he was going to shoot the middle or shoot the gap or whatever it was going to be. I think I just got a really good restart and then just got going.”
Harvick, who came up just short in his bid to successfully defend his title, watched Busch on a television monitor after the race, when the new champion let a whoop of joy.
“It’s just exciting,” Harvick said of what he knew Busch was feeling. “When you race your whole life and you accomplish what you’ve raced for your whole life, it’s exciting. I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is. You know, it’s fun to see that excitement.
“To come back from everything that he came back from, that’s a great comeback story from where he was after Daytona.”