HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There was a time early in Kyle Busch’s career that his talent could not save his job.
Wrecked race cars and temper tantrums helped wear out his welcome with Rick Hendrick, who let Busch go knowing the young driver would probably beat Hendrick Motorsports in a championship battle down the road.
That’s exactly what happened, too, as Busch finally won his first Sprint Cup title on Sunday. He won the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to lock up the crown and deny former Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon a fifth title in the final race of his career.
The title-winning drive also dethroned reigning champion Kevin Harvick and stopped Martin Truex Jr. from winning his first Cup title in a four-man race to the trophy. It came in the most turbulent season of Busch’s career, and showed just how much he’s matured since Hendrick let him go eight years ago.
Busch was in a horrible accident in February when he crashed into a concrete wall at Daytona and broke his right leg and left foot. It happened the day before the Daytona 500 and put both his season and his career in jeopardy.
But he worked harder than he’s ever worked in his life at anything to recover, and he was back in the race car a mere three months later. NASCAR gave him a waiver to race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship should he qualify, and Busch made it his mission to earn one of the coveted playoff positions.
In the days after his return to racing, Busch turned 30 and celebrated the birth of his son. During the 11 races he missed, he’d spent time with his wife and developed a perspective on life that he’d never had before. His rivals saw the difference in him on the track.
“I see a changed Kyle,” Gordon said. “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. Between having a baby, the thing that happened to him at Daytona, the time with his wife ... he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and I don’t know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before.
“I think he showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”
Indeed, Busch won in his sixth race back, on the road course at Sonoma, a week after he finished last at Michigan. He crashed two cars in his first five races back as he pushed too hard to try to earn a spot in the Chase.
It was after that last-place finish at Michigan that he recognized he had to be a more patient driver if he had any shot at all at making the playoffs.
“When we went and finished 43rd at Michigan, that’s when I was just like, ‘All right, forget it. Just race the race car. Don’t worry about running up front and winning and being fast. Just let it come to you,’” Busch said. “And I played the whole rest of the season that way all the way to the end — just let everything be. Whatever it was going to be, it was going to be.”
Busch was never capable of thinking like that during the early part of his career and it hurt him down the stretch every season.
When Hendrick let him go, he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing and drove hell-bent on making Hendrick regret his decision. Busch won eight races that year, but faltered down the stretch and finished 10th in the 2008 Chase.
There were four wins the next year, but a 13th-place finish in the final standings. A three-win season in 2010 still only got him to eighth in points, and on and on the cycle went as Busch just couldn’t race smart or safe enough in the Chase.
Before Sunday’s season finale, he’d never even won a race in the Chase and he’d never remained in title contention down the final stretch.
But after winning at Sonoma, he recognized his new strategy might be the right one and Busch reeled off four wins in five weeks. He earned his spot in the Chase and then raced fairly error-free to make it into the final four.
Busch didn’t relentlessly chase victories in this year’s Chase; he just tried to be steady to put himself in a position to race for the title.
Harvick, who overcame his own self-inflicted issues to win his first title a year ago, lauded the improvements in Busch. It’s high praise coming from Harvick, who has sparred with Busch repeatedly throughout his career.
Harvick mellowed after he had a child, and he thinks the birth of Busch’s son six months ago played a huge role in him winning a championship.
“I think you see that little guy that he holds in his arms, it puts things in a different perspective,” he said. “It used to be you didn’t want to have kids because it took the fire out of you from driving the car, and now it seems to have calmed a lot of us down to the point where we can focus and do the things that we need to do to concentrate on our jobs. He’s overcome a lot, but man, he’s still pretty young.”