By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – There’s no telling where a younger, less mature Kyle Busch might have been this week.
For all his talent, he probably wouldn’t have been at Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day session in preparation for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBC) and his shot at a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Team owner Joe Gibbs sees the difference in his driver, who has overcome extreme adversity to put himself in position to battle defending champion Kevin Harvick, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, and Martin Truex Jr. for the title – about the only crown that’s eluded Busch during his career.
At 30, Busch owns 153 career victories in NASCAR’s three national series, including 33 in Sprint Cup competition. But he’s never finished higher than fourth (2013) in the final standings. Sometimes, equipment has let him down. Other times, he’s been his own worst enemy, letting emotions get the better of him.
“Kyle, for the last couple of years … reacts in the car differently,” Gibbs says. “He seems to have more of a patience and is willing to think things through. He’s still very aggressive, but the way he deals with things are much more even now. I think he’s definitely in a different place than he was 10 years ago.
“I think he’ got the talent (to win a title). … You see it in the NFL. I think everybody looks at championships as the way you’re judged. I think (a Cup title) would be a big deal and a big statement for him.”
In some ways, Busch has already delivered that statement. That he’s even positioned to race for a championship is a minor miracle and a tribute to his own and his team’s perseverance. Busch broke his right leg and left foot in a crash during the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona in February and missed the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season.
“I wouldn’t say that I could have (imagined being here),” Busch said. “(After the crash) we were trying to figure out whether or not I was going to be eligible, when I was able to return, and whether or not I could make up enough points to get myself in contention to be Chase-eligible come Richmond (the final race of NASCAR’s regular season).”
Busch remembers NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton visiting him in his hospital room the day after his Daytona crash, still uncertain what waiver process, if any, the JGR driver might have at his disposal. For a time, even after he returned to the cockpit of the No. 18 Toyota Camry, it didn’t look like it would matter.
“After Michigan, when I crashed out there and finished dead last, we were like: ‘OK, we’ve got to reboot here and figure out what we’re going to do to make the Chase,’” Busch said. “But things went well. We won at Sonoma and won four out of five weeks and it just turned us around and put us where we needed to be.”
Needing to not only register a victory but earn enough points to crack the top 30 of the driver standings in order to qualify for the Chase, Busch reeled off four victories in a five-race stretch during the summer, including consecutive victories at Kentucky, New Hampshire and Indianapolis.
“He came back, roaring,” Gibbs says.
Now, Busch says he feels like he’s playing with “house money.” But did his comeback peak too early?
Although he’s posted five top-five finishes in the first nine Chase races, Busch hasn’t won a race since his July 26 victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I feel like we’ve done some good things through this Chase,” he says. “We’ve run up front, we’ve run strong and we also had a couple mishaps. Fortunately they weren’t big enough that they eliminated us.”
Busch and JGR have already posted one significant victory this week, announcing that the team has finalized a multi-year deal with Mars, Inc.to keep Busch in a candy-coated Camry for the next several seasons.
But nothing would be sweeter than a victory on Sunday. Busch’s best run at Homestead came in 2012 when he led 191 laps but settled for fourth.
Image: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images