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Who Would Have Thought?

By on March 1, 2016
NASCAR Champions Portraits

Love him or hate him—there’s not too many fans in the middle—anyone who follows NASCAR® Sprint Cup Series racing would be hard pressed not to admit that Kyle Busch can drive a race car with the best of ‘em.

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 15: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Crispy Toyota, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 15, 2015 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Even before the green flag waved for the 2015 Daytona 500, however, it looked like his season might be over. Busch, winner of 141 NASCAR national series races, was ruled out indefinitely after suffering a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a broken left foot in a wild, multi-car crash during the late stages of Saturday’s XFINITY Series season opener. His JGR No. 54 Toyota® Camry® veered off course, careening over the infield grass, and into a concrete retaining wall located on the track’s interior—lining the short chute from the tri-oval area to Turn 1—at nearly a head-on angle.

Busch was pulled from the wreck and rushed to nearby Halifax Health Medical Center, where doctors performed emergency surgery on his right leg. Four days later, after surgery in a Charlotte-area hospital to repair the fracture of his left foot, Busch went home.

Channeling his inner telestrator in analyzing film of the crash during a 55-minute press conference at Joe Gibbs Racing on April 15th, the chilling specifics emerged. Busch said his car left the course at a speed of 176 mph, hitting the concrete barrier at 90 mph, unleashing a force of 90 Gs upon impact— ”a whale of a hit, the hardest I’ve ever had in NASCAR,” he said.

In an eerie coincidence that he said might seem ‘absolutely bona fide crazy’, Busch said he looked to his left during the warm-up laps, noticing for the first time the same area that he would hit 111 laps later. “I saw the tire wall, and I was like, ‘wow, I never really noticed it over there,’” Busch recalled. “Then I saw the wall that was unprotected, and I’m like, ‘Man, if somebody hits that, that’s really going to hurt.’”

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch and wife Samantha pose for a portrait during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Fast Forward

While some well-intentioned friends and veteran observers, inside and outside the garage, advised Busch not to rush his return, others
even advised him to sit out the 2015 season. He would have none of it. After missing the first 11 races, Busch was cleared to return for the May Charlotte races. On May 13th, NASCAR announced Busch would remain Chase eligible by meeting all requirements except Rule 17.6.2.1.a, which requires that a driver start all Championship Events of the current season. To qualify for the Chase, however, Busch needed to be within the top 30 of the Championship point standings after race No. 26, and meet all other stated requirements within the NASCAR Rule Book.

In his first race back on May 16th, Busch finished a very respectable 6th in the non-points All-Star race. Then on the 18th, Kyle and wife, Samantha, welcomed their first child, Brexton Locke Busch. After starting 17th, Busch finished 11th in the May 24th Coca-Cola 600. An accident ended Busch’s day in 36th at Dover on May 31th. Two weeks later, an accident at Michigan resulted in a finish of 43th. The skeptics were talking; maybe they were right about returning too early.

Busch turned things around by besting his brother, Kurt, for the win at Sonoma on June 28th. A July trifecta then propelled Busch closer to the top-30 with consecutive wins at Kentucky on the 11th, New Hampshire on the 19th and Indianapolis on the 26th. His only pole of the season was recorded on August 2nd at Pocono. Just 11 weeks after returning, he moved into the top-30 in season points at Watkins Glen with a strong 2nd place run. Another 2nd at Richmond on September 12th vaulted Busch into the Chase for the Championship tied for the top seeding with four wins.

The Chase Champion

Finishing off one of the most remarkable comebacks in NASCAR history—indeed, in the annals of sport—Busch won the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22nd and, with it, his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Busch pulled away from defending series champion Kevin Harvick after a restart with seven laps left, crossing the finish line 1.553 seconds ahead.

The victory was Busch’s fifth of the season, his first at Homestead and the 34th of his career. The championship was the first by a Toyota driver at NASCAR’s highest level. It was the fourth championship for Joe Gibbs Racing with three different drivers—Bobby Labonte (2000) and Tony Stewart (2002, 2005) preceding Busch. Kyle and Kurt Busch, who won the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2004, make up the second pair of brothers to win Sprint Cup Series titles, joining Bobby and Terry Labonte (1984, 1996).

In his final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Jeff Gordon, who was seeking a fifth series crown, finished sixth behind Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson to secure 3rd place in the series standings behind Kyle Busch and Harvick. Martin Truex Jr., the fourth driver eligible for the title in the Championship Round of the Chase, finished 12th on Sunday.

“I don’t know if I understand life yet, but there’s something to be said about this year,” a jubilant Busch said after crossing the finish line. “It’s pretty unbelievable. A dream of a lifetime, a dream come true… I just can’t believe it, with everything that happened this year and all the turmoil, all the things that I went through, that Samantha went through, and the people around me went through. This championship is for all these guys (team), my wife, my family, everyone who has sacrificed so much to get me here to this place today, whether on my team right now, or on my teams in the past. It’s really awesome, awesome, awesome!”

2016 Rules Package

The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rules package was announced on October 14 after an extensive collaborative process that involved industry stakeholders.

The base package includes a 3.5-inch spoiler, a 0.25-inch front leading splitter edge and a 33-inch wide radiator pan. These components will reduce downforce, and Goodyear will develop complementary tire packages. A similar aero package was utilized during 2015 races at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway.

“NASCAR has worked tirelessly with our teams, drivers, manufacturers and Goodyear to develop a 2016 rules package that provides fans with the best racing possible,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer. “The success of the 2015 races at Kentucky and Darlington in similar trim proved extremely valuable in accelerating rules development for 2016. We anticipate 2016 racing will be even better.

Characteristics of the lower-downforce rules package include more off-throttle time for drivers and decreased corner speeds. This generates more passing zones over the entire track, and allows for multiple tire combinations to be levered.

In addition to the base package, each track will continue to feature specific rules, including tire combinations and drive train configurations, to create the best racing for each track length, layout and surface. Rear gear ratios will be adjusted to maintain a maximum engine speed of 9,000 RPM and a 1.38 third gear ratio will be used at all tracks smaller than 1.25 miles. Several safety updates have also been instituted.

“Our team at the NASCAR R&D Center is constantly looking at the racing, and evaluating ways to continue to improve it,” O’Donnell said. “Using science and technology and qualitative data compiled from world-class engineers throughout the industry as our guideposts, we will always look to make the racing better for our fans.”

Good luck to all NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors. Test your skill by developing your own list of the 16 drivers who will earn a spot in the Chase for the Championship and the eight who are likely to fall a bit short.

Chase Format Extended

For 2016, the Chase playoff system has been extended to the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Twelve XFINITY drivers will compete in two elimination rounds over the course of seven races beginning at Kentucky (Round of 12, Round of 8 and Championship 4). Eight Camping World drivers will also compete in two elimination rounds over the course of seven races starting at New Hampshire (Round of 8, Round of 6 and Championship 4. The champions for all three series will be crowned on November 18-20 at Homestead-Miami.

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