An era ended in NASCAR racing Nov. 22. Jeff Gordon, the man of 93 Sprint Cup victories, four titles, and a whole lot of moments that helped the sport blow up in stature nationwide, was among the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A fifth title was out there for the taking. All Gordon had to do was finish ahead of his three challengers – regardless of where they were in the running order – and close his career with the perfect ending.
Kyle Busch crashed the party and rewrote the script.
Despite missing nearly one-third of the season – 11 of the 36 races – Busch came through and won both the Ford EcoBoost 400 and his first NASCAR Sprint Cup crown. Adding to the history, it was the first Sprint Cup championship for Toyota Racing.
Oh, where to begin to figure out what it all means.
Gordon ended up sixth in his final race of a 22-year career, third among the final four that mattered behind Busch and Kevin Harvick. As he exited the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet for the final time, there were plenty of hugs and smiles to go around.
Harvick was going for a championship repeat himself, but had no chance of catching Busch on the final restart with seven laps to go. That’s how good the 18 car was when it counted.
As for the fourth contender, Martin Truex Jr. gave it his all, but didn’t have nearly enough to challenge. He led some laps, but finished 12th in the final running order at
So through all the controversy, all the craziness, and all the questions, how Busch pulled the feat off was nothing short of remarkable.
First and most important, Busch had to heal from his nasty injury in the season-opening XFINITY race at Daytona. There was doubt about when he could return from broken bones in his leg and ankle for the longest time.
The rules for his return were simple and very fair. Win a race AND have enough points to get into the top 30 to qualify for the Chase.
Busch was back in time for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to kick the comeback in motion. Five races later, he met the first requirement, winning on the road course at Sonoma Raceway.
That was the easy part. Picking up enough points was to be much harder.
Funny how more winning helped accelerate the charge to the goal.
Busch’s win at
started a run of four victories in five weeks. He still didn’t have enough
points to get in the top 30, but it certainly helped.
After his seventh-place run at
Busch was officially in the Chase.
In Year 2 of the 16-driver elimination format, I was genuinely skeptical about Busch’s Chase history, especially because he hadn’t won a race in the final 10 weeks of any season since his rookie year of 2005.
But it didn’t matter.
Other than a 37th at Loudon, Busch came through with finishes that mattered at the perfect times. His runs in the Eliminator round of
fifth, fourth and fourth.
On the final Sunday of a crazy NASCAR season, Busch won when it counted and he has his own Sprint Cup trophy. With Kurt Busch’s title in 2004, Kyle cemented the second pair of brothers in NASCAR history as season champions, joining Terry (1984, 1996) and Bobby Labonte (2000).
Maybe being a new father made him mellower, but Busch’s performance in 2015 proved one thing. Staying focused on the journey and avoiding distractions makes the final destination that much sweeter.
Tom Zulewski will be writing one more column from
at the Champion’s Week celebration to honor Kyle Busch on Dec. 4. Follow him on
Twitter @Tomzsports. Las Vegas