HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Busch watched the season opener from a hospital bed, his pregnant wife and his dogs by his side.
He ended the year in victory lane, hoisting the Sprint Cup with his infant son in the middle of a celebration.
NASCAR’s comeback story is now a championship tale.
Busch won his first career Sprint Cup title Sunday night, nine months after he crashed into a concrete wall the day before the Daytona 500 and broke his right leg and left foot in a wreck that forced NASCAR to make immediate safety improvements at almost all of the circuits.
Busch withstood multiple surgeries, went through a grueling rehabilitation program and missed only 11 races. He got back in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in late May and NASCAR granted him a waiver to race for the title should he earn a berth in the playoffs.
“Going through the rehab, it was hard. It was really, really hard,” Busch said. “To just get vertical and get straight up and down, I did about three seconds and I was seeing stars. We just kept powering through and doing as much as we could, as quick as we could, and we were able to power through and get back.
“I said back then, I’ll say it again, the rehab and then getting back and getting focused was the hardest part, the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. To put it all together here tonight, this night wasn’t all that hard.”
He won the season finale Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim the title, and knocked Kevin Harvick from his perch as reigning champion. Busch also denied Jeff Gordon a fifth crown in his final race.
Harvick finished a distant second, Gordon was sixth, and Martin Truex Jr., the fourth driver in the championship field, finished 12th.
“You always want to win, but I’ve learned not to be greedy,” Harvick said after his 12th second-place finish of the year cost him the championship.
There was a strong sentimental push for Gordon to go out on top in his final race. But he was only average all season, and that didn’t change Sunday night in front of a huge contingent of friends and family that included Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and Mario Andretti, who both sat atop his pit box at the start of the race.
Gordon led nine laps early in the race and was third for an early restart but he bobbled it and plummeted to eighth. That was about as good as he’d be the rest of the race as he struggled mightily with the handling of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“Gosh, I’m a little disappointed, I’ll be honest,” Gordon said. “I thought going into the race we had something for them.”
Gordon eventually made his way to victory lane to congratulate Busch, who began his career as Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Temper tantrums and wrecked race cars led to his release before the 2008 season, and Busch has been chasing a Cup championship ever since. He’s the most successful driver in the second-tier Xfinity Series and on Friday he captured his fourth owners’ championship in the Truck Series.
“All he’s been through this year, nobody’s more deserving than him,” Gordon said about the new champion.
Truex, the underdog driving for single-car team Furniture Row Racing, also didn’t have enough in his Chevrolet to contend despite a handful of gutsy pit calls the team used out of desperation.
“We really felt like without trying something really different, we weren’t going to get there,” Truex said. “We felt like we had to take a really big swing at it.”
That made the championship race a two-car battle between Busch and Harvick, and the outgoing champion simply didn’t have enough for Busch.
Busch was headed toward the title via a second- or third-place finish in the race when NASCAR called a caution for debris with 11 laps remaining. Team owner Joe Gibbs pumped his fists in frustration, but Busch remained calm in the car. The field headed to pit road, Busch asked for an adjustment, and was second on the restart with seven laps remaining.
He worked his way past Brad Keselowski to claim the lead, then pulled away and beat Harvick by 1.553 seconds.
“The dream of a lifetime, a dream come true,” Busch said.
The title is a sweet reward for Busch, who has made huge personal and professional gains over the last several years. Known as one of most talented drivers in the sport, his temperament often got in his own way. But he has mellowed with marriage, gained perspective after the Daytona wreck, and was determined to be on his feet in the delivery room when wife Samantha delivered their first baby, a boy born in May — right after Busch returned to the race car and celebrated his 30th birthday.
“I don’t know if I quite understand life yet, but there’s something to be said about this year,” an emotional Busch said on his team radio.
Busch also joins older brother, Kurt, as a NASCAR champion. Kurt Busch won the title in 2004, the inaugural season of NASCAR’s Chase format. The system has been tweaked several times and is in the second year of an elimination format that sends four drivers to Homestead to race for the title.
The title is the fourth NASCAR crown for Joe Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winning coach, but first since 2005. The title also is the first for Toyota, which joined the series in 2007.
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