By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
Kyle Busch came up short in defending his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing sixth in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Busch finished third in the championship standings, five points behind race-winner and seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and two points behind second-place Joey Logano.
“It’s very challenging,” Busch said of how tough it is to repeat as champion. “The biggest thing is you just don’t know where anybody is until the end. I mean, (Jimmie) Johnson was nowhere all night long – couldn’t keep up with us really. We were the third-best car I felt like and I never even saw him in my mirror barely. He just came out of nowhere there at the end and did what he needed to do and was Superman and won the championship, so that’s when it matters.”
Despite struggling with handling issues in the early stages of the race, Busch ran in the top-five for the first-half of the 267-lap event until a flat right rear on his No. 18 Toyota forced an unscheduled pit stop at Lap 135. Busch returned to the track but was mired back in the 18th position .
Fortunately for Busch, a caution for debris at Lap 170 allowed the Las Vegas native to get back on pit sequence with the leaders and stay in championship contention. Busch would restart from the third position with 55 laps to go and quickly pass Joey Logano for the second spot to lead the rest of the Championship 4 for the first time in the race.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and fellow championship contender Carl Edwards passed Busch with 24 laps to go but Edwards was involved in an accident with Logano on a restart with 10 laps remaining that resulted in a red flag that lasted 31 minutes.
“Whatever is thrown at you, you’ve just got to keep making the best of what you’ve got and just keep trying. We did that and we had a lucky break there when the yellow got us back in the sequence with everybody. We weren’t the best this weekend. We didn’t have the fastest car – our teammate (Carl Edwards) did. Neither one of us come home with a prize which is disappointing.”
A wreck by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brought out the yellow flag to set up NASCAR Overtime and Busch hit pit road for four fresh Goodyear tires, returning to the track in the 13th position.
“We were just too far back. In order to make up that many spots, we were going to need more than just two laps, but we were going to be able to do it if there were more laps, but that’s the choice we made and we didn’t feel like we had a shot to win if we didn’t come down.”
While Busch didn’t win the championship, Toyota secured their first Sprint Cup Series manufacturer’s championship with a single-season best 16 wins, marking the first Sprint Cup Series manufacturer’s title for Toyota since joining the Cup Series in 2007.
“I just can’t say enough about this M&M’s team. All year long they fought hard,” Busch said of a 2016 season in which he recorded four wins, 17 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. “There were moments today where definitely it wasn’t going to be our race at all and then there were moments where it might be our race and we just weren’t able to pull through tonight.”