Monday November 23rd, 2015

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Five thoughts on Kyle Busch’s double whammy victory in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

1. The driver known as “Rowdy” has finally settled down

It seems a bit too pat that a crippling accident could transform Busch into a different driver. But his team owner, Joe Gibbs, believes it was a critical stage in his overall maturation—right up there with getting married, and becoming a father six months ago. The injuries he suffered in that fateful crash nine months ago at Daytona (a broken leg, a busted foot) were a major wake-up call. “I thought I was gonna have to go back to laying decals,” Busch said post-race.

“In the past, he’d wear his emotions on his sleeve,” Gibbs said four days before Sunday’s race, while explaining his ace pilot’s old approach to problem solving. Back in the day, Busch would melt down over the slightest mishap. Now? “He just seems to be more focused and thinking his way through things,” Gibbs continued.

After Sunday's race, Busch was even more philosophical—“I guess I feel more at peace a little bit,” he said. 

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If Busch were going to lose it, a caution flag with 11 laps to go would’ve been a perfect moment. But all he did was line up on the first row against race leader Brad Keselowski, pass the Penske driver going into turn one and cruise along for three furious laps until the checkered flag flew. Quite simply, Busch drove like there was nothing riding on the result. 

And why not? His car was near perfect. His rivals for the Cup title—Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex, Jr.—struggled all afternoon. What’s more, every adjustment his crew chief, Adam Stevens, made paid a dividend. Surely Busch’s sweet reward—a fifth victory, a maiden Cup series title, a fourth Cup for the Gibbs franchise—will have other young drivers screaming, “Serenity now!” 

It was only after being congratulated on his career achievement that Busch unleashed his emotions. “This is so cool!” he said, and then he let out a little yelp.

2. Gordon didn’t get his storybook ending

But that’s not to say he didn’t get his happily ever after. He got to go out with his entire family by his side and two racing legends, Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton, on his pit box. (“How about that?” Gordon said of his guest wheelmen.) He got to feel the love from the grandstand, where fans flipped cards that spelled out “Thank You Jeff 24ever.”

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During the race, he got to hang with the frontrunners (after qualifying 14th) and even lead the pack around for nine laps—the first of which drew a standing ovation from the crowd—until his teammate Kasey Kahne smacked the wall and brought out the second caution of the day. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “The competitor in me got a little bit—just so caught up in the moment of the race where we took the lead and I got really excited, and I thought, Okay, we’ve got clean air. Let’s see what we have. And I knew I needed a few adjustments. The track was really slick. I actually felt like when I got ahead of Kyle that we actually pulled away from him.

“I kind of got excited and got my hopes up there, but then Kevin started coming on pretty strong. And then we had that restart. And, you know, I knew when those guys got by me I just didn’t quite have what they had. I was just lacking a couple little things.”

No matter. Gordon, a fifth-place finisher, isn’t going home empty handed. There are his four championships, all of them won in the Winston Cup era. There’s the lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, where he is a part owner. And then of course there’s the satisfaction of having forever changed the face of his sport. Careers don’t wind down much nicer than that. 

3. Harvick was so close

His car, while not without its operational issues, hung near the front all day—including 46 laps at the very front. It just wasn’t good enough to catch Busch, who beat him by 1.5 seconds.

For Harvick, easily the most dominant driver in the Cup over the past two years and maybe the most deserving title contender left in the Chase, it was a hard loss indeed, as it denied him a chance to become the first racer in five years to win consecutive titles. But if Harvick smarted from this historic setback, he didn’t betray as much afterward. As Busch yelped with joy off of Victory Lane, Harvick watched from inside the media center on a nearby monitor. A smile creased in the corner of his mouth. Harvick couldn’t help it. He was happy for the guy. “It’s just exciting,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to experience that last year and know that feeling of how gratifying that is. You know, it’s fun to see that excitement.”

4. Martin Truex will be back

And he will be better than ever once his team, Furniture Row, switches from Chevy engines to Toyota—incidentally, the official power plant of your 2015 Sprint Cup champion. (In fact, the title is a first for Busch’s manufacturer, too.) Truex’s 12th place finish belies the fight he and his crew showed all race. After starting 11th and surging to the front, Truex struggled with his car’s handling and faded deep into the top 13—where he spent a good chunk of the afternoon battling Gordon. “[We] just never could quite hit on anything to get the car to do the things we need it to,” Truex said. “Not from lack of effort.”

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Desperate for a spark, Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, brought Truex in for a two-tire change under a second-half caution. The call seemed to pay off early when Truex exited pit road first and, after the restart, settled into third place. But, alas, he couldn’t hold his positioning. As the green-flag run wore on, he sank and sank.

While Truex’s result was the lowest of the Chasers, it still leaves him in fourth place for the season. For a guy in his second year driving for a one-car team based in Denver, that is a ton to be proud of and a ton to build upon. 

5. Controversy? What controversy?

The rain came early, delaying the race for almost two hours. But it never came back after the green flag flew—for a staggering 237 out of 267 laps. Matt Kenseth returned from a two-race suspension after wiping Joey Logano clean out of the Chase. But the two frenemies didn’t get into any scrapes on Sunday. A final caution flag flew with 11 laps left and Busch firmly in the lead. But it had no bearing on the final result. Take a bow, NASCAR. Your championship went off without a hitch yet again. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for next season.

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