At age 30, Kyle Busch completed the transformation from rowdy rebel to deserving champion on Sunday, securing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in a campaign which defied all odds.
The season, which began disastrously with a crash at Daytona in February, ended in victory lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway with his wife, newborn son, and a cascade of M&Ms, courtesy of his primary sponsor.
“It’s pretty unbelievable -- a dream of a lifetime, a dream come true,” Busch said.
“I just can’t believe it with everything that happened this year and all the turmoil that I went through, all that my wife (Samantha) went through, and the people that are around me went through."
Despite his immense talent, 33 previous Sprint Cup victories and a record 76 more in the XFINITY Series, some wondered if Busch would ever see this day.
He’d won eight Sprint Cup races in 2008 but finished 10th in points. His Chase turned to disaster last year when he also finished 10th. His best points finish had been fourth in 2013.
Some said he lacked maturity. Maybe things just came too naturally to him and he didn’t work hard enough. He’d had his awkward moments off the track, too. Some said he just needed to “grow up.”
Yes, there was the time he intentionally wrecked NASCAR Camping World Truck Series veteran Ron Hornaday. Sure, there had been a couple run-ins with Carolina cops for driving at a high rate of speed away from the track.
But 2015 offered him the chance to put all of that behind him. He not only made believers of the doubters but turned many boos from the crowd to cheers.
It started with the broken right leg and left foot suffered at Daytona in the opening XFINITY Series race of the season. As he rehabbed, he and wife Samantha also prepared to welcome their first child in May, a son, Brexton. When Busch did come back, NASCAR determined he’d not only have to win a race, but battle his way into the top 30 in points to earn a place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
He was back on the track sooner than most expected, missing only 11 races.
Busch said that rehabbing from his injuries was “the hardest thing I have ever gone through” and that taught him a lesson.
“You don’t know how many times I wanted to stop,” he said “I guess you’re a lot tougher than you really realize, whether it’s physically (or) mentally. I had to put everything I had into rehab and everything I had into being able to walk. My wife was there to power me through and my dog, Lucy, was barking at me to get me through it too.
“I was just trying to get prepared for my son’s birth and make sure that I could be there for the hospital trip and be able to stand and support Samantha and not worry about being in a wheelchair and stuck on the side of the room."
Busch said that becoming a father changed his perspective on many things.
“I’ve never dreamed anything so little could be so happy, but he’s such a cool little dude,” Busch said. “He’s always smiling and always having fun, except about four a.m. -- that’s daddy time (and) that’s a little rough. It’s all worth it in the end.
Samantha Busch saw it first-hand.
“This is amazing,” she said, holding Brexton. “I don’t think people know how hard he worked -- what we both went through this year, from trying to get pregnant, to the accident, to fighting his way back. It’s just a storybook year. I’m so proud of Kyle and the team.”
On his final day in a Sprint Cup car, Jeff Gordon also took note of Busch’s emergence as a true championship contender.
“I don’t know if ‘grow up enough’ is the right term,” Gordon said. “His talent is so strong and that team really found some things this year. But I will say, with what he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle.
“When he came back, he not only was driven and inspired, you could tell he was racing smarter, with more patience – just being more deliberate. Between having a baby, the thing that happened to him at Daytona and the time with his wife -- I think he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things. I don’t know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before, and I think he showed it right away that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”
Busch, who not only kept closest championship rival Kevin Harvick in his rear view mirror for much of Sunday’s race, powered away from Brad Keselowki on the final restart. He led 41 laps (most importantly, the last seven), but knows he didn’t do it on his own.
“Adam Stevens (crew chief) prepared such a great race car,” Busch said. “Adam Stevens is my hero. I love that guy.”
Stevens indicated the feeling is mutual.
“I leaned on Kyle Busch pretty heavily,” he said. “You just have to get him close – that’s the beauty of Kyle and his talent, skill and dedication. His feedback is so good. I think anybody could adjust on his car. I’m thrilled to be a part of Kyle Busch’s career. He’s a future Hall of Famer and to be anywhere close to him is amazing for me.”
Busch’s championship is the first in the Sprint Cup Series for Toyota, but the second in the Busch family. His older brother Kurt won the title for Jack Roush in 2004.
“I think when we talk about past times when he missed in the Chase, a lot of it was us,” said Joe Gibbs, who previously captured Sprint Cup titles with Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002, 2005). “I think in a lot of ways he was ready (to win), but our race team wasn’t ready.
“But he’s only 30, so I think we’ve got some (good) years left.”