Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images

Busch Looks to Cap Trying 2017 Season with Second-Career Title

Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series focusing on why each of the Championship Four will end Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title in hand.

By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer

With five victories, 13 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes, eight poles and almost 2,000 laps led in 2017, most wouldn’t describe Kyle Busch’s season as “trying.” But that’s exactly how the 32-year-old driver described it when asked for one word to represent the season during Championship 4 media availability in advance of Sunday’s winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Busch didn’t get to victory lane until July at Pocono Raceway, the 21st race of the 36-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. But since then, the Las Vegas, Nevada native has been on a tear, scoring three wins in the first nine races of the playoffs, including Martinsville, which punched his ticket to the Championship 4.

While the duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus has been the most prominent driver-crew chief relationship over the past decade, Busch has seen much success with Adam Stevens. In 91 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races together since 2015, the duo has recorded 14 victories and three-consecutive Championship 4 appearances, including the 2015 title.

“Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had great racecars for me all season long, but we were able to turn those good cars into wins the second half of the year and we are hoping for one more this weekend,” Busch said. “That’s what it’s likely going to take to win the championship.

“It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. It’s a great opportunity to win a championship with this format. If it wasn’t set back at zero, we’d probably all be congratulating Martin right now with the season he’s had,” Busch said of Martin Truex Jr., who has a series-leading seven victories and has been the most dominant driver on 1.5-mile tracks in 2017.

Along with Truex, Busch will battle former champions Kevin Harvick (2014 champion) and Brad Keselowski (2012 champion) over the course of 400 miles on Sunday in South Florida.

Busch will look to solidify his name in the NASCAR record books by becoming the 16th driver to win two or more championships since the sport was founded in 1959. Busch’s first title came in 2015, just nine months after breaking his right leg and fracturing his left foot in the season-opening XFINTIY Series race at Daytona. After missing 11 races that year, Busch returned to win five races, including the title-deciding race at Homestead over then defending champion Harvick.

A quick glance at Busch’s stats at Homestead-Miami Speedway are a bit concerning, with an average finish of 19.8 and just two top-five finishes in 12 career Cup Series starts. Busch’s career driver rating at Homestead is 96.9, third-best among the Championship 4.

But Busch has shown signs of strength at the 1.5-mile track. In 2012, he led a race-high 191 laps before coming up short on fuel. A driveline issue put Busch in the garage in 2014. Last season, Busch led 41 laps but fell short of the title with a sixth-place result.

If past history has shown us anything, it’s that to win the championship, you need to win at Homestead-Miami. Four times the winner of the season-finale has won the title during the Playoff Era, including the last three seasons (Harvick – 2014, Busch – 2015, Jimmie Johnson – 2016). In 2014 and 2015, the second-place finisher was also a Championship 4 contender.

Of the 22 different tracks on which the series competes where Busch has won, he has multiple wins at 12 of them. To earn that second title, Busch will most likely need to park the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in Gatorade Victory Lane on Sunday and record multiple wins at his 13th track.

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