Championship a family affair for Kyle Busch
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It’s funny how a guy who has often been told to grow up finally got the inspiration to do it from a newborn baby.
But that’s what happened this year to Kyle Busch, the longtime enfant terrible of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It has been a wild and crazy year for Busch in every respect, one that started with the driver missing the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season to injury and ended with him in Victory Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway, standing strong on bones that had been badly fractured nine months earlier.
The turning point in the most challenging and fulfilling year of his life had nothing to do with racing. May 18, 2015, is the day son Brexton was born to Busch and his wife, Samantha.
It was quite literally a life-changing event.
“I’ve never dreamed anything so little could be so happy, but he’s such a cool little dude,” Busch said while celebrating with his family and team.
“Samantha and I, for what she went through, what we went through this year and to have Brexton this year, it’s so cool to have him be a part of all of this here tonight and to celebrate with his father. He won’t remember what this meant today, but maybe one day he’ll understand what it means.”
Some would say that it took Busch too long to understand how to become a champion. His talent is undeniable; his record 76 victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and 34 wins in the top-level Cup Series are ample evidence of that.
But while Busch won an Xfinity championship in 2009, before Cup drivers were prevented from competing for that title, he has never seriously contended for a season crown in the Cup series. This year, when he crashed heavily in the Xfinity opener at Daytona International Speedway and broke his right leg and left foot, a Cup title looked more elusive than ever for Busch.
But something happened while Busch worked tirelessly to rehabilitate his broken body. With Brexton’s birth set for delivery May 18, Busch used that date as a goal to drive himself to not only be ready to assist in the birth, but to get back in his race car far earlier than anyone honestly expected.
He made his return to Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota in the Sprint All-Star Race on May 16 at Charlotte.
“I guess you’re a lot tougher than you really realize, whether it’s physically and mentally,” Busch said. “I had to put everything I had into rehab and everything I had into being able to walk and to get through everything that I was going through. 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, you know? That wasn’t what it was going to be all about, so I had a little man pushing for me to get better.”
Once he got back in the car, NASCAR gave Busch clearance and defined requirements to be granted a waiver into this year’s Chase. He would need to fit the regular rules, which at the least means finishing in the top 30 in the standings and winning a race. That looked like a tough task.
Instead, Busch went on a tear, taking advantage of JGR’s strong summer form to win four races in a five-week period in June and July. He made it into the top 30 with two races to spare.
Holding her son in Victory Lane while the celebration raged on behind her, Samantha Busch paid tribute to her husband, and she also acknowledged the role little Brexton played in both of their lives.
“This is amazing,” she said. “I don’t think people know how hard Kyle worked. What we both went through this year, from trying to get pregnant with this one [Brexton], to the accident, to fighting his way back, it’s absolutely amazing.
“He [Brexton] has been the greatest blessing,” Samantha added. “It’s just a storybook year. I’m so proud of Kyle and the team. I can’t even tell you my emotions right now — this is absolutely amazing.”
Once qualified for the Chase, Busch and his team led by crew chief Adam Stevens played the elimination format to perfection. They avoided the pratfall of a big wreck at Talladega that eliminated them from Chase contention last year, then produced a strong Eliminator 8 round that featured three top-5 finishes to qualify for the Final Four at Homestead.
Lining up third on the grid, Busch was the top qualifier among the four Chase eligible drivers at Homestead, and he held that advantage for most of the day, only briefly being led by eventual second-place finisher Kevin Harvick.
He was even reminded of Brexton during the closing stages of the race, singing a song from his son’s favorite learning video called “Vocabularry” to calm himself over the final 60 laps.
Retiring NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon was one of the three drivers who raced Busch for the title on Sunday, and he noticed a big difference in his rival driver after his Daytona Xfinity accident.
“What he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle,” Gordon observed. “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 between having a baby, the thing that happened to him at Daytona, the time with his wife, and other things … he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things,” added the four-time Cup champion. “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.”
From his time as an NFL football coach into NASCAR team ownership, Joe Gibbs has always been known as a family-first kind of guy. The fostering nature of Gibbs and his organization have gone a long way to mellow out the brash Busch, who joined the team in 2008 after running his formative years in the Cup Series driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gibbs’s son, J.D., the president of JGR who earlier this year began treatment for a brain condition affecting speech and processing functions, made a rare appearance at the track this weekend, adding a poignant aspect to the team’s fourth Cup Series championship.
Bobby Labonte won the Cup title in 2000, joined by Tony Stewart in 2002 and ’05.
Surrounded in Victory Lane by friends and his JGR family, it all contributed to Busch being in a contemplative mood on the biggest day of his professional life.
“There are certainly a lot of things that you learn and there’s certainly a lot of things in life that I don’t know that you’ll ever fully understand,” he said.
“This year is certainly one of those for myself, but it’s so great to be in this spot right now and to count the blessings that we have. I can’t say enough and thank the good Lord above.”