By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kyle Busch has always been regarded as the driver with the most raw talent in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage. However, over the first few years of his career it was hard for Busch to harness that talent and build it into consistent championship-caliber seasons.
As years began to click by, the questions began to arise. Would the Las Vegas-native ever be able to win a championship at NASCAR’s highest level?
The now 31-year-old driver finally dropped the mic on the doubters last season. After missing the first 11 races of the 2015 campaign with injuries sustained in an Xfinity Series race at Daytona, Busch utilized a medical waiver and incredible performances over the remainder of the year to put himself in a position to win his first Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Busch wouldn’t squander the opportunity, and he would win the season finale and he would hoist the Sprint Cup in the process.
Fast forward a year, and Busch the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion again heads into Homestead inside the Championship four.
This time around though, Busch is in position to do what only one active driver (Jimmie Johnson) has been able to accomplish — win back-to-back Sprint Cup Series titles. For Busch and his No. 18 team, getting the monkey off their backs last season serves as a huge confidence boost.
“I think winning the championship last year definitely impacted us. It just gave us a greater sense of belief in ourselves and our team and confidence in being able to go out there and do it again,” said Busch during Thursday’s Championship Four Media Day. “You know, there’s no reason to think that what we accomplished last year is a one-time thing. We feel we’re just as good last year if not better and performed better throughout this Chase in order to get ourselves in the position we’re in.”
If the 38-time race winner in the Sprint Cup Series can get the job done again Sunday evening, it would further cement his status as not only the greatest driving talent, but possibly as the best complete driver in the sport today. At the very least, winning a second championship would place Busch in elite company.
Drivers with consecutive Sprint Cup Series championships (all-time)
Buck Baker (1956-’57)
Lee Petty (1958-’59)
Joe Weatherly (1962-’63)
David Pearson (1968-’69)
Richard Petty (1971-’72, 1974-’75)
Cale Yarborough (1976-’77-’78)
Darrell Waltrip (1981-’82)
Dale Earnhardt (1986-’87, 1990-’91, 1993-’94)
Jeff Gordon (1997-’98)
Jimmie Johnson (2006-’07-’08-’09-’10)
Something working in Busch’s favor is that he has slipped under the radar, as many are keeping an eye on Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a record-tying seventh series championship. However, Busch downplayed the pressure facing Johnson’s attempt at history.
“I think Jimmie is good enough, calm enough that that doesn’t get to him much,” Busch explained. “Those guys have been there and done that in years past. I think that when they won one, everybody says, oh, they’re going for two. When they won two, everybody said they’re going for three in a four. When they won three in a row, they were going for four in a row. They did things that were unprecedented in this sport, and they achieved those things through how great they are. That’s why they’re one of the guys that are here and one of the guys to beat, and for me, one of the guys that I knew when they were able to get to this level of this Chase format that were going to be hard to beat.”
What’s the major concern for Busch? He has just four top-10 finishes through 11-career starts at the 1.5-mile speedway. However, Busch has picked up his pace in South Beach in recent years. When you add in the win in last year’s event in Homestead, Busch has two top-five finishes and three top-10 finishes over his last four starts at this race track.
Busch seems calm, he seems confident. Don’t be surprised if we see a Rowdy Smoke show Sunday in the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead.