Long after the sun had gone down on Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kyle Busch crawled out of his Toyota in victory lane after not only capturing the checkered flag for the Ford EcoBoost 400, but also winning his first ever Sprint Cup championship. It was a storybook ending to Busch’s year that made it one of the best comeback stories in all of sports.
Even though he ended up as the sport’s champion this season, Kyle’s season did not start off that way as he broke his leg and foot in an accident in the season opening Xfinity race the day before the Sprint Cup Series’ first race at Daytona. The accident led to six days in the hospital, two surgeries and him missing the first eleven races of the season.
There was no worse way to start a season for both the Joe Gibbs Racing team and its driver but rookie crew chief Adam Stevens showed some remarkable leadership skills as he kept the team together while Matt Crafton, David Ragan and Erik Jones filled in until Busch could return. When Busch did return, he was granted a waiver by NASCAR that would still give him a chance to make the Chase.
Chase rules state that you have to start every race to be eligible to be in the Chase field but the waiver removed that requirement. He still had to win a race and finish in the top-30 in points to become Chase eligible. His attempt to make the Chase became a great story line to follow as the season moved into the summer stretch of the schedule as he didn’t win a race until the series went west to Sonoma Raceway. That win was just a prelude of what was to come as it started a stretch of four wins in the next five races.
Once he had a win, all that was left was to continue his climb up the points list to the top-30. The long road back to Chase eligibility was finally achieved in August at Watkins Glen when he broke into the top-30 and never looked back on his way to making it into the championship round of the final ten races.
When the Chase got underway, Busch’s advancement to the following rounds became difficult as he experienced problems in each of the first two rounds but was able to advance because of his position in the points. He posted three top-five finishes in the Eliminator round that made him one of the Championship four drivers that entered Homestead with the opportunity to run for the title.
Busch and his team brought a car to Homestead that was capable of winning and as it turned out it took a win to claim his first ever Sprint Cup title as he finished one point ahead of second place Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon in his last race finished third in the final standings followed by Martin Truex Jr. in fourth.
The championship was the fourth for Joe Gibbs Racing as Busch joins Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002 and 2005) as title holders for the former Super Bowl winning owner. The four titles all won since the 2000 season gives JGR a title winning percentage during that sixteen year stretch of 25%.
Besides being the first series championship for Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens, the title also provided several other firsts. Long-time NASCAR sponsors M&M’s Mars recorded its first ever title in the series and it was also the first driver championship at the Cup level for Toyota.
The final numbers for Busch’s remarkable season includes one pole, five wins, 12 top-5’s, 16 top-10’s and he led 736 laps (10.9%). Those are championship numbers especially when you take into account that he missed nearly three months of the season, but the stat that can’t be measured is the amount of work and heart it took him to get back behind the wheel. It was indeed a championship that was earned and one that can be celebrated by the entire sport!