Saturday, December 16, 2017
Sports

Kyle Busch continues to savor Sprint Cup championship

DAYTONA BEACH

One of the flashy new entrances at Daytona International Speedway honors one of the biggest comeback stories in recent sports history.

It has been less than a year since Kyle Busch left that track in an ambulance. His right leg was broken. So was his left foot. His shot at the Daytona 500 was over. His NASCAR Sprint Cup future was in question.

When fans enter the Toyota-themed entrance for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, they won't see reminders of that wreck in a Feb. 21 Xfinity series race. Instead, they'll see a massive picture of Busch with one simple message:

Our champ.

"It's definitely crazy, the way that it all happened and the way it went down," said Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "It's obviously still a story. We're still talking about it."

And we might be talking about it for years to come. His competitors said for years that Busch, 30, was too fast and too talented not to win a title. With Busch's first one under his belt, Jimmie Johnson expects Busch's No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to keep the hardware coming.

"I said once he learned how to win a race, he's never going to stop," said Johnson, a six-time Sprint Cup champion. "Once he learns how to win championships, he's never going to stop. I feel like he's got more championships in his future, for sure."

With the way Busch rebounded last year, that's hard to argue.

Busch needed his then-pregnant wife, Samantha, to help with his initial recovery. It was a month after the wreck before he could walk. Two months after that, Busch was ready to race again.

"It all went together pretty quick," Busch said.

And once he got back into the driver's seat for the All-Star race May 16 at Charlotte, he never slowed.

He won in his fifth points race after his return, at Sonoma, then took three of the next four checkered flags. By mid August he had climbed inside the top 30 in points, passing the mark he needed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship.

"He met all the rules of what it took to be the champion," said Michael Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 champion. "I thought he should be the champion with an exclamation point because of what he did."

Wins and strong finishes had always been there for Busch, who has 154 wins across NASCAR's Cup, Xfinity and Trucks series. But the most notable part of his championship run — aside from returning to race at all — was how he replaced his recklessness with maturity.

"He stood in his own way many times," Johnson said. "He's done a lot of growing."

After wrecking in two of his first five races back, Busch realized those results could derail the comeback he had worked so hard to accomplish. Newfound patience on the track let him string together solid finishes. In his final 21 races, he finished outside the top 10 only six times. Only two of those runs were outside the top 20.

In the 10 Chase races, Busch finished in the top 10 in six of the first nine, and he won the finale at Homestead to top Jeff Gordon for the series title.

"Time always helps with that maturity level," said his brother, 2004 series champion Kurt Busch, 37. "When you're thrown into Sprint Cup racing at such a young age, then you have plenty of room to mature, too."

Kyle has had one other big reason to grow up: the birth of his son, Brexton, in May. Trying to stick a spoonful of baby food into your child's mouth forces you to learn patience.

With one lifetime goal behind him, Busch rattles off the other career goals on his checklist. He wants to win the Coca-Cola 600 and the All-Star race. He wants victories at every track on the circuit and 200 across all three NASCAR series.

And he wants to become the sixth driver to follow a series championship by winning the Daytona 500.

"We'd love nothing more than to continue on our championship celebration all the way through this weekend here," Busch said.

The decorations at the track are already in place.

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