The year that Kyle Busch grew up
It’s taken me a while to wrap my head and heart around this: Kyle Busch is the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion.
Yeah, the same Kyle Busch, now 30 years old, who was suspended for intentionally wrecking a Camping World Truck competitor, the same one who calls himself Rowdy and has done all he can to live up to that name for 13 years.
Yet this is also the same Las Vegas native who, over the past couple of NASCAR racing seasons has begun to look more like an adult, even as he continues to bow at the start/finish line each time he’s won a NASCAR race of any kind – which means Kyle Busch takes a hell of a lot of bows.
Some might consider Busch’s championship tainted by his medical absence from the first 11 races of the 36-contest season and NASCAR’s subsequent allowing him to compete for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But those were circumstances beyond Busch’s control (but not NASCAR’s) and his quick return to being one of the best wheelmen in the business showed us Rowdy’s commitment to his livelihood.
There are quite a few things I’ve noticed about Busch over the past few years: his marriage to Samantha mellowed this guy; he loves dogs (that’s a prime show of humanity to me); after his accident Kyle Busch was willing to live with pain so that he could quickly return to his day job.
Busch’s team owner, Coach Joe Gibbs is one hell of a motivator. It’s something he’s done his entire life and has produced championships with it. Until this year, his alliance with Toyota had netted goose eggs. He’s had the right engines, the right drivers but there was a disconnect somewhere.
It took Kyle Busch, likely his most naturally gifted driver but also the most tempestuous, brash, cocky and entitled brat of the bunch to bring home the bacon. Busch did it the right way, winning the race (as did 2014 champion Kevin Harvick) to beat Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr in the four-man, 400-mile shootout at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After starting third in the season finale, Busch led six times for 41 laps, and the final green-flag sequence was the one that gave him a first NASCAR Sprint Cup title, as well as a first for Toyota Racing Development and Joe Gibbs Racing since it began to race with Toyota.
It’s probably taken this long for it all to sink in for Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs, David Wilson of TRD and the entire JGR group of teams. They’ve all worked hard to get to this point, most of Busch’s newer teammates coming from other squads to take that ultimate chance of being No. 1.
That it came to Busch, who raced only 25 events but still racked up five victories, 12 top 5 results and 16 top 10s, along with a single pole position, says a lot about Busch, the team Gibbs put around him and maturity in the face of pain and sorrow.
The No. 18 Toyota, with its smiley-face M&M candies sponsor (that just re-upped with JGR) is now going to be the toast of the town in Las Vegas, home to Kyle Busch and his brother Kurt. That the younger brother has grown up with his marriage, his injury, his fatherhood and all that goes with that is really quite a sea change.
This week, instead of being booed to the rafters, Kyle Busch will be celebrated by his peers and by his ever-increasing number of fans. His is one of the great sports comeback stories – in any sport – and even Gordon, who retired following the season finale noted, “I see a changed Kyle. When he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, but you can tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate.”
Busch came back to racing a stronger man after being injured at Daytona International Speedway in the first Xfinity race of the year last February. With his right leg and left foot both broken, he couldn’t even stand up for 10 days. “I had to stand on my broken leg and not put any weight on my left foot,” because the foot was in worse condition.
“I was like, ‘man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car again..’,” Busch reminisced after the final checkered flag made him a champion for the first time in NASCAR Sprint Cup.
So there will be a lot of celebrating to do with friends and family in Las Vegas this week, always a great spot to celebrate just about anything. And if you think this is one and done for Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, please think again. The floodgates have opened.
Words and Photos By Anne Proffit