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Kyle Busch wins NASCAR's Sprint Cup title

HOMESTEAD — As Kyle Busch celebrated the biggest victory of his life, he tried to reflect on the turbulent road that made him a NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion.

The years of immaturity that made him one of the sport's most polarizing figures. The wreck in February that could have derailed his career. The scorching summer stretch that reestablished him as a contender.

And finally, Sunday's 267 dominant laps over the three other title contenders — including his boyhood hero — that ended in a victory in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and his first Cup championship.

"I don't know that you could have ever scripted it any better," Busch said.

It would be hard to top his performance Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Busch needed only 19 laps to push his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the lead. He couldn't pull away too far; all four finalists were in the top five in the race's first 100 miles.

But one by one, the other contenders dropped off.

In the final race of his legendary career, Jeff Gordon — Busch's childhood idol — took the lead on a restart on Lap 36. Nine laps after the sold-out crowd roared in appreciation, Gordon was passed by another finalist, Kevin Harvick. Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet faded and finished sixth.

"I knew when those guys got me," Gordon said, "I just didn't quite have what they had."

Neither did Martin Truex.

Part of his No. 78 Chevy caught fire midway through the race, but he recovered and inherited the lead thanks to a two-tire stop with 101 laps left. But Busch passed Truex in the first corner on the restart, and Truex finished 12th.

"We just never could quite hit on it," Truex said.

That made the final 130 miles a two-car battle for the title between the defending series champion and one of its most talented drivers.

Harvick inched toward Busch to battle for second with 85 laps left before slipping. With 22 laps left, Busch's championship lead had swollen to eight seconds.

But debris on the track led to one final caution the 11/2-mile oval with seven laps left.

"I knew it was time to go," Busch said.

Busch took the outside line on the restart and sped past leader Brad Keselowski for his sixth lead of the night. Harvick followed.

Harvick's No. 4 Chevy could never close the gap in his quest for back-to-back championships. Busch cruised to a 1.5-second victory for his 34th Cup win.

"The 18 car, he just had us beat all night," Harvick said.

And that meant Busch was finally able to join his older brother, Kurt, as Cup champions by completing one of the most remarkable sports comebacks in years. The 30-year-old missed the first 11 Cup races after breaking a leg and foot in the Xfinity series season opener at Daytona.

"I was terrified that he was really in bad shape," said Busch's crew chief, Adam Stevens. "…I didn't know what kind of shape his legs were in. I didn't know if it was going to be this year or next year or if he would ever walk again."

Busch climbed back into the car in May and won his fifth race back. He added three more victories in the next four races to help get into the top 30 in points and earn a spot in the Chase, despite missing more than 40 percent of the regular season.

He's the first driver in the modern era (since 1972) to win a title without running every race, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

"I don't know what he did," Gordon said, "but he came out of it even better than he was before."

Gordon said the old Busch was easy to rile up and prone to pushing his car past its limits. He was put on probation in 2008 for bumping Carl Edwards during a cool-down lap. Three years later, Busch was suspended for a race after intentionally wrecking a rival in the truck series.

But after the injury, Gordon found Busch more deliberate and focused.

That transformation earned Busch a long-awaited championship — and a long hug from his hero with celebratory confetti scattered all around.

"Pretty unbelievable, I guess," Busch said. "It's a dream of a lifetime, a dream come true."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Gearhead stats

From Ford EcoBoost 400

Winner's average speed: 131.755 mph

Time of race: 3 hours, 2 minutes, 23 seconds

Margin of victory: 1.552 seconds

Caution flags: Seven for 30 laps

Lead changes: 18 among eight drivers

Lap leaders: Logano 1-19; Ky.Busch 20-35; Gordon 36-44; Harvick 45-90; Larson 91-92; Logano 93-138; Ky.Busch 139; Edwards 140-144; Logano 145-151; Edwards 152-154; Ky.Busch 155-168; Truex 169-171; Keselowski 172-214; Ky.Busch 215-216; Keselowski 217-257; Ky.Busch 258; Keselowski 259-260; Ky.Busch 261-267

Kyle Busch wins NASCAR's Sprint Cup title 11/22/15 [Last modified: Sunday, November 22, 2015 10:41pm]
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