With a flair for the dramatic and a car that asserted its superiority after a blood-red Florida sunset over Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kyle Busch claimed a milestone victory in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 — along with his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.
At the same time, Busch emerged from the shadow cast by doubters who discounted the chances of the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who hadn’t won a race in NASCAR’s top series since the June event at Pocono Raceway.
Other than seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Busch is now the only active driver with more than one title. Finishing 4.578 seconds ahead of JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., who was thwarted by a colossal mix-up on pit road after leading 8 of the first 120 laps, Busch is the first driver to win multiple titles under NASCAR’s elimination playoff format.
“Everybody always says you never give up,” said Busch, who picked up his 56th victory, breaking a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace for ninth all-time. “We’re no different. We just do what we can do each and every week.
“Sometimes we may not be the best. Sometimes we may not have the right track position. Today we had a really good car, and I could race around and move around. That’s what’s so special about Homestead-Miami Speedway — the ability to put on a show.
“I felt like we did that here racing those guys. I know it kind of dulled out towards the end. It was exciting enough from my seat. It was a lot of fun to cap off such an amazing year.”
After a cycle of green-flag pit stops, Busch led the last 45 laps. Crew chief Adam Stevens called the No. 18 Camry to pit road on Lap 210, and Truex didn’t pit for service until four laps later. With four extra laps on new tires, Busch cycled out to a lead of nearly 11 seconds, and, though Truex, the 2017 champion, cut the margin down to fewer than five seconds, he ran out of time.
Truex already had lost his track position during a green-flag stop on Lap 120, when his crew bolted right-side tires to the left side of the car and vice versa. That rare mistake forced Truex to return to pit road under green, dropping him to 13th in the running order, one lap down.
Though Truex regained his lap under the only incident-related caution of the race (John Hunter Nemechek’s spin on Lap 136), he was never in position to challenge Busch for the win.
“Yeah, ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” Truex said. “We restarted the third stage in third, and really wish I could have been either second or fourth. I got blitzed on the outside by the 20 (third-place finisher Erik Jones) and the 22 (fifth-place Joey Logano) and a couple of those guys; and then I had to just run the crap out of my right front to get back by them. I got tight on that run, and it took me forever to just get by a few cars.
“Ultimately, it came down to track position. I felt like if I could have been up front and controlled the race, I could have driven away from them.”
Given the way the race played out, the other two Championship 4 contenders — Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — weren’t factors in the run to the finish. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford had excellent short-run speed, but the event stayed green for the final 101 laps, nullifying his strength on restarts.
Hamlin had to make an extra pit stop in the final run to pull tape from the grille of his No. 11 JGR Toyota to prevent the car from overheating. Under the playoff format where he highest finishing of the Championship 4 drivers is crowned the champion, Harvick came home fourth, 14 seconds off Busch’s pace.
Hamlin was 10th, the last driver on the lead lap.
In an odd way, the 2019 run to the title seemed similar to the 2015 championship season, as far as Stevens was concerned. Busch missed the first 11 races that year because of injuries suffered in a crash in the season-opening NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona.
He won four races in a five-event stretch shortly after his return. Then he won at Homestead to secure the Cup trophy.
“We had a cold spell there,” Stevens said of this year’s five-month drought. “It’s been well documented, believe it or not. Quite a few questions about it. Felt a little bit like 2015 to me. Take the broken legs out of the equation. We were hot early in 2015 when Kyle came back. We didn’t win since Indy that year, then came to Homestead and got the job done.
“You got to remember, too, we’re in such a unique situation, as a competitive team that runs up front with the goal of winning the championship every year. Everything we do is to make that happen, right? To win the regular season points championship, then try to maintain that and get to Homestead — that’s what it’s all about.”