By DONNA-BETH WEILENMAN
Kyle Busch started the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in Halifax Hospital. While his colleagues were fighting to win the Daytona 500 in Florida, Busch was starting his own battle, just to get back into the Joe Gibbs No. 18 Toyota.
In an effort that earned him the nickname “Comeback Kid,” Busch racked up enough wins and points to qualify for the Chase for the Championship. And Sunday, Nov. 22, he took both the checkered flag in the Ford Ecoboost 400 and the 2015 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. It’s his first year to win that trophy, and the first time a Toyota team has earned the honor.
And Busch did it after missing 11 of the first 26 races while his competitors were busy garnering wins and points toward championship contention qualification.
Busch was involved in a horrific Xfinity race accident Feb. 21, that broke one leg and crushed the foot of his other leg. The Daytona 500, won by Joey Logano, was run the next day. NASCAR officials announced Busch could still make a run for Chase eligibility, but many observers wondered if he still had enough races left to do the job.
After multiple surgeries and physical therapy Busch called “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he finally climbed back into his Mars candy-sponsored car in May.
Starting with the Toyota-Save Mart 350 June 28 at Sonoma Raceway, Busch won three races in a row and added another victory to his credit to tie El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson for wins. But Busch also had to accumulate enough to make the Chase. The driver made it under the wire, then progressed through the 10-race eliminations to be among the final four candidates in Sunday’s race.
The victory Sunday wasn’t easy. Busch had to beat reigning champion and Bakersfield native Kevin Harvick to the finish line, because Harvick was another of the four Chase contenders. Harvick had charged up to second, but on the final restart with seven laps to go, “I put it to the floor and gave it all I got,” Busch said. “This is so cool!”
Gibbs, who was somber and grim-faced just before the Daytona 500 as he filled in reporters on his driver’s condition, was jubilant Sunday on Victory Lane.
“It’s a thrill to be here,” said Gibbs, who now has more NASCAR championships than he has Super Bowl wins (1982, 1987, 1991) as coach of the Washington Redskins. He’s won previous Cup championships starting in 2000 with Bobby Labonte and in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart.
The season finale was also the final race of Vallejo native Jeff Gordon’s illustrious career. Gordon has earned four championships, started a record 797 consecutive times and never missed a start in his 23 years as a Cup driver. Gordon has been one of Busch’s heroes, the new champion said. “I’m going to miss racing against him.”
While Sunday’s race was dominated by Logano, Brad Keselowski and Busch, the capacity crowd of 60,000 stood and cheered louder than the sound of racing engines when Gordon took the lead on Lap 36. But Gordon’s car quit handling changing conditions, and he finished the race a disappointing sixth.
Still, Gordon called Sunday a “happy, happy, happy day” despite the finish. Gordon’s career will take him into the broadcasting booth for race coverage, and he’s said he wants more time with his family.
The fourth Chase driver, Martin Truex Jr., gave his Furniture Row Racing team its first shot at a championship. Unlike other multi-car teams with hundreds of employees, Furniture Row is a small Colorado operation with fewer than 70 on board.
But Truex ran into problems during a pit stop on Lap 142, when sparks from lug nuts ignited fuel just outside his car. He and his crew escaped unhurt, but he finished 12th.
“We came a long way as a group,” Truex said. He’s in his second year as the team’s driver, and landed the job after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a team that closed its doors after Sunday’s race after failing to recover from accusations of race finish manipulations. “All the things I went through got me here today.”
Of other California drivers, El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson finished ninth; Los Gatos native A.J. Allmendinger was 20th; Alpine’s Cole Whitt was 28th; Riverside’s David Gilliland was 32nd; Grass Valley’s Matt DiBenedetto was 37th; Riverside’s Josh Wise was 39th; and Bakersfield native Casey Mears was 42nd.
Busch starts a round of public appearances as champion before he starts preparing for the 2016 season that starts again in Daytona Beach. “I think Kyle’s going to be a good champion,” Gibbs said. “He’s bright; sharp when he gets away from the track. I think you’ll like him!”