DARLINGTON, S.C. – Now, the debate can begin: Is a driver who misses nearly a third of the season worthy of being a champion?
Kyle Busch will get the chance to accomplish that after clinching a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
That he did is remarkable after missing the first 11 races of the season because of a broken right leg and fractured left foot in the season-opening Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch admits he wondered about his chances of making the Chase even with NASCAR granting an exemption that a driver must qualify for every race to be Chase eligible.
“We weren’t looking so good after Michigan,’’ Busch said of the 43rd-place finish in the June race, which marked his second finish of 36th or worse in his first four races back.
“It was really doom and gloom. I was bumming. I just wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t sure what was going on. It took a little bit of that time to get the rust knocked off, I guess. It’s probably the longest I’ve been out of the race car in my life. That was a tough lick.’’
He responded by winning the following week at Sonoma Raceway, starting a stretch where he won four of the next five races to make it realistic that he would climb into the top 30 in points – another requirement to be in the Chase.
“He just got on a roll there and he’s been consistent and he’s raced really smart,’’ teammate Denny Hamlin said.
Busch earned his Chase spot with a seventh-place finish Sunday.
“We weren’t very good,’’ said Busch, who was in a backup car after damaging his primary car in practice Friday. “I think I got us a little bit behind on what our adjustments needed to be for the race.’’
He also faced a challenge when he spun with Greg Biffle, bringing out the caution on Lap 208.
“No give and take,’’ Busch said. “I guess no give, plenty of take. That’s not how you’re supposed to race Darlington and we both screwed it up.’’
Biffle waited for Busch to finish talking to reporters and they walked down pit road together.
Busch walked into the night knowing he was going to race for a championship, as all four teams for Joe Gibbs Racing make the Chase.
“Welcome to the Chase,” crew chief Adam Stevens told him when the checkered flag flew.
Who could have imagined? Now, can he win the title?