There are 287 miles between Daytona and Homestead. But dimensions of time and mind-set separate a crash at Daytona and a championship in Homestead.
Kyle Busch finished that nine-month odyssey Sunday night by running away off the last restart to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was delayed by 1 hour 50 minutes because of rain.
Busch won the 2015 Sprint Cup season series title by finishing ahead of the other members of the Chase for the Sprint Cup’s Championship 4: defending series and race champion Kevin Harvick (second), Jeff Gordon (sixth) and Martin Truex Jr. (12th). For the second time in two years of this Chase format, to be the best finisher of the final four at Homestead, the champion had to win the race.
Asked if there was a chance he might push too hard as he has in the past, Busch said: “Not when you’ve got a car driving as good as mine was.”
He said: “We worked on our car being able to work the bottom, middle and top to make sure we had the drivability we needed to be wherever we needed to be.”
The Hollywood racing movie ending wouldn’t go to Gordon, the retiring icon largely responsible for NASCAR’s broadening fan and financial base during the 1990s and early 2000s, but to Busch.
Like the Scott Stoddard character from 1966’s Grand Prix, Busch sustained serious injuries the first racing weekend of the season, then recovered to enter the final race with a shot at the title. He broke a leg and a foot running the Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
“Going through the rehab process made me mentally tough,” Busch said. “I know what I can do physically and mentally.”
While missing 11 races during rehabilitation, his wife gave birth to their first child.
“It used to be you didn’t want to have kids because it took the fire out of you from driving the car,” said Harvick, a combative driver in his younger days, often with Busch. “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.”
Busch returned to win four of five races over the summer to get into the Chase, then won at Phoenix during the Chase to get into the final four. On Sunday, he ran in front of the other Chase contenders almost the entire race and led the entire field for 41 laps.
The seventh caution flew with 11 laps left for track debris on the front straightaway. All the leaders came in for fresh tires and fuel. Busch, running in third behind Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson when the yellow flew, came out in second. Harvick stayed in fourth. Gordon dropped to 10th. Truex sat back in 13th, reduced to observer.
At the green, Busch streaked past Keselowski for the lead and left the field behind, stretching his lead to 1.5 seconds. Harvick got around Keselowski and Kyle Larson.
But Busch, though less than two seconds away, already ran in another world.
“I thought there at the end that the restart, we might do a little better than that,” Harvick said. “But obviously either the splitter was on the ground or the car was just tighter than it probably needed to be, and just, I couldn’t hustle it and got it tight and got it up the racetrack and got behind.
“The 18 car, he just had the speed all night for the most part.”
And, with Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship, it gives the Busch brothers each a title in NASCAR’s premier series.
“This championship is all for these guys,” Kyle Busch said. “My wife, my family and everyone who sacrificed so much for me to be here, whether teammates now or in the past.”
One of those past teammates was Gordon. Had the driver with the third-most wins in NASCAR’s premier series not been among the final four Chase drivers, Sunday’s career benediction still would have dominated prerace attention. The potential for Gordon to go out with a fifth series title turned the steady stream of adulation from fans and peers into a Niagara Falls.
The drivers’ meeting included a video tribute to Gordon. Other drivers tweeted their appreciation. Harvick had his picture taken next to Gordon’s car. When Gordon showed early speed by taking the lead from Busch, the roar of the sellout crowd exceeded the roar of 43 engines.
“I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there,” Gordon said. “But, then Kevin started coming on pretty strong, and then we had that restart [after an early competition caution]. I knew when those guys got by me I just didn’t quite have what they had. I was just lacking a couple little things.
“And then the sun started going down and it really started changing, and we lost a bunch of positions and just couldn’t gain them back.”
Gordon said he thought Busch’s talent exceeded his own, but his lack of patience allowed other drivers to pressure him into mistakes. Before the Daytona crash, that is.
“I don’t know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before,” Gordon said. “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.”