HOMESTEAD, Fla. – When Kyle Busch faces the crowd from a makeshift stage on a racetrack’s frontstretch, his knowing grin usually isn’t returned as warmly as it was Sunday night.
A mass of humanity excitedly pushed toward the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, craning to get closer to where Busch held aloft the first Sprint Cup trophy of his career. Clad in the colors of various NASCAR drivers, mostly those of Jeff Gordon, they indiscriminately lunged to catch dozens of lime-green packets of M&Ms and T-shirts embossed with “18 Champs” that wildly were hurled into the crowd by Busch’s team members.
The gifts were met with broad smiles and lusty cheers – and none of the boos, catcalls or insults typically hurled at an alleged stock-car villain who often draws the most derisive of reactions when introduced on the same type of dais before a race.
Sure, free swag and candy probably help in plying the emotions of easily pleased NASCAR Nation (fans also were begging to be tossed beads and moon pies), but there was another undeniable truth as resolute as Busch’s convincing victory in the Ford 400 that made the unwithering support for NASCAR’s new conquering hero seem genuine.
This wasn’t Kyle Busch, polarizing lightning rod demonized and dissected by many fans who secretly relish having a driver they love to hate.
This was Kyle Busch, a once-petulant kid who became the graceful king.
Sunday’s loudest roar from a crowd of 60,000 was reserved for when Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet took the lead for the final time, but the noise was comparable for the No. 18 Toyota’s celebratory burnout – a tacit acknowledgment that respecting a retiring legend’s greatness didn’t preclude appreciating the potential emergence of the next.
Busch didn’t seem such an unpopular champion, though he wasn’t ready to decree it, either.
“I think becoming a champion doesn’t necessarily change fans’ opinion of you, but I think how you are the sport’s champion will change perception of how people think of you,” he said. “I’m really optimistic and looking forward to being the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and doing all the things that a champion is supposed to do, and maybe that’ll change some more things about me.
“But it’s certainly been a whirlwind season this year, and I think there’s been a lot of change in myself and my family and my team, but yet I think there’s probably still more to go.”
The question is how many more championships to go?
The keen eye that identified the prodigious ability of six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson has singled out Busch as a candidate for embarking on a similar run now that he has the confidence of a breakthrough championship.
“He’s more talented than I am,” Gordon said of Busch, who turned 30 in May but just completed his 11th season. “If he keeps racing the way that he did this year, to me the edge that I always had on Kyle, as talented as he is, as fast as he is, is that sometimes he never knew where to stop pushing the car to the edge, and especially at a track like this when you’re right up against the wall, taking the right side off of it.
“If you can put pressure on him, you can kind of force him to push it over the edge because he’s capable of pushing it so far. But this year I saw a new Kyle Busch and one that he held back at the times when he needed to, and that’s important.”
There were no snickers in the news conference at Gordon’s mention of “new Kyle Busch,” a tired NASCAR narrative that has prompted Twitter memes and parody accounts for years. Over a series of agonizing flops in the Chase (his previous best finish in points was fourth), Busch constantly struggled to recalibrate his game and maximize the boundless skill that once made him the subject of bidding wars between powerhouse teams as a teenager. Every time, the proclamations of newfound maturation behind the wheel and off the track didn’t stick.
This time, his reinvention as a world-class racer is real.
And it comes at a time in which there’s more to love about Kyle Busch than ever.
Consider everything that the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has endured, enjoyed and overcome just this season:
–The biggest night of his life came nine months and one day after one of the worst when he entered Halfiax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., for extensive surgery on a broken right leg and fractured left foot that threatened his NASCAR career.
–He became a first-time father to Brexton in May, adding an unexpectedly softer and vulnerable side to his brash and irrepressible demeanor (to calm himself during Sunday’s race, Busch hummed his 6-month-old son’s favorite cartoon song — “It’s this little parrot that teaches words.”).
–His famously competitive fire – Busch has 154 wins across NASCAR’s three national series and has sights on reaching 200 – was off the charts despite a three-month absence. In becoming the fourth driver to win a Sprint Cup and Xfinity title (joining Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick), Busch won four times in five Sprint Cup races after missing the first 11 and finished with five victories (his best since 2008). He captured his first Brickyard 400 to cap a two-day sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kyle Busch Motorsports won its first Camping World Truck Series driver’s championship.
“Yeah, no doubt,” Busch said when asked if it was the best year of his life. “I don’t think anything tops this year. This is certainly pretty special.
“I wouldn’t do it without everyone that surrounds me — my wife, my family, my friends, my employees at KBM, Joe, J.D., the team at JGR. It’s just cool to hear all (the accomplishments) rattled off”
There were many other reasons the 2015 championship was compelling.
Toyota won its first Sprint Cup title, capping a eight-year slog through many near-misses and an inauspicious start of scandal and struggle. Joe Gibbs’ fourth crown in big-league stock-car racing surpassed the number of Super Bowls he won as a coach, and his team celebrated its finest season in 22 years while expanding to a four-car powerhouse, rallying despite the diminished role of his son and team president J.D. Gibbs.
But it was Busch’s saga that made it fantastic – so much that even his longtime rival and sometimes bitter foe Harvick seemed elated for him even after being outdueled in trying to defend his championship.
“I think when you race your whole life, and you accomplish what you’ve raced for your whole life, it’s exciting,” said Harvick, who gamely finished second but never mounted a serious challenge to Busch. “I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling and know how gratifying that is. It’s fun to see that excitement.
“That’s a great comeback story from where he was after Daytona.”
Busch fully learned to harness his emotions that once got the better of him during in-race meltdowns. When a debris caution with 10 laps remaining Sunday wiped out his margin on Harvick and possibly his championship, Busch calmly keyed his mic to talk strategy with crew chief Adam Stevens (“I think I just knew the greater picture,” Busch said).
But as much as the mental makeup, he also impressed the NASCAR establishment with his mettle. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who parted with Busch on less than amiable terms eight years ago, was among his biggest supporters, calling and texting regularly to check on his rehabilitation.
“He showed some real guts to be broken up like he did and come back and have to do what he did,” Hendrick said. “He just seemed to mature a ton since the accident and the way he handles himself, the way he races people. If you’re faster than he is now, he’ll pull over.
“I’m really happy for him. He deserves it. He’s going to win a lot of championships. We’ll have to see him for a long time. … He’s paid his dues in the sport.”
Said Gordon: “What he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never talked to him and got into details about it. But 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. I think he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things, and he came out of it even better than he was before. He showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”
He could be destined to win many more.
For at least one night, reveling in a shower of candy and confetti, much of NASCAR Nation seemed more than OK with that.