Packets of M&M’s rained down as enthused members of Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team celebrated a championship that wasn’t supposed to happen by hurling candy to fans stationed around the makeshift stage.
The celebration that ensued had long been expected to be a regular occurrence throughout Busch’s career. Yet, in his 11th season, the 30-year-old’s résumé while heavy in wins, was still blank in the championship section.
Seemingly every year as the leaves began to change colors in the fall, Busch would find a way to flame out in the postseason. One season it would be due to a parts failure, another because of a preventable mistake by Busch or a competitor, other times the car just wasn’t good enough.
It was never a talent issue with Busch, who’s been regarded as one of the best wheelman in the sport since his 2005 rookie season. No, what often did him in was the other stuff. He was too emotional, too high-strung and when adversity befell, didn’t possess the necessary mental fortitude to overcome setbacks.
But this Busch, the one who won Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway and earned the 2015 championship, is vastly different from the previous versions. Whether it’s a newfound perspective brought about by fatherhood or the realization of just how quickly a career can disappear, it’s a transformation that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“What he went through this year, I see a changed Kyle,” said Jeff Gordon, who finished third in the championship. “When he came back, not only was he driven and just inspired by it, but you can tell he was racing smarter, with more patience, just being more deliberate.”
What Gordon is referring to is the violent wreck that saw Busch slam into an unprotected concrete wall during a February Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Registering 90 Gs, it was the hardest crash of his career with his body paying a significant price. He badly broke his right leg and left foot, injuries that not only jeopardized his season but perhaps his career.
“I was really worried,” Busch said. “I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car again.'”
Doctors said Busch would be lucky to return mid-summer — at best. And that kind of prolonged absence assured his quest for a career-first championship would have to wait another year.
Not so. Exhibiting a kind of resolve that he had often been accused of lacking, Busch committed himself fully to an arduous rehabilitation program. At times the pain was so great he thought he was blacking out.
“It’s certainly not easy, but it’ll make you mentally stronger and physically stronger,” Busch said.
Returning far sooner than expected, Busch was back driving May 16 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A succession of wins followed shortly thereafter, and somewhat improbably, a Chase berth that once appeared unlikely, had been secured.
The Daytona accident wasn’t the only monumental event that changed his life and altered his outlook. Two days after Busch resumed racing, wife Samantha gave birth to the couple’s first son, Brexton. It was wanting to be there for his wife during the final days of her pregnancy that propelled Busch to ferociously rehab.
“I was just trying to get prepared for my son’s birth and make sure that I could be there for the hospital trip, and be able to stand and support Samantha, and not worry about being in a wheelchair and stuck on the side of the room,” Busch said. “I had a little man pushing for me to get better.”
Six-month-old Brexton continued spurring dad to greater heights on Sunday. As the laps wound down and he found himself trying to fend off Harvick, the reigning series champion, Busch soothed his nerves by singing a song off “Vocabularry,” a series of learning videos Brexton watches.
“Between having a baby, the thing that happened to him at Daytona, the time with his wife and other things, I think he had a lot of time to think about a lot of things,” Gordon said. “I don’t know what he did, but he came out of it even better than he was before. I think he showed it right away when he came back that there was a pretty good chance he was destined to win this championship.”
Gordon, who drove his final race Sunday, wasn’t alone in noticing Busch’s changed demeanor. Even Harvick, a former adversary — the two once played bumper cars on pit road at Darlington — admitted Busch was different. Harvick had once been like Busch, but he too mellowed with age and fatherhood.
“You see that little guy that he holds in his arms, and you know it puts things in a different perspective,” Harvick said.
And as the M&M’s flew through the air and champagne bottles popped, Samantha and Brexton were present in Victory Lane. Appropriate, because without his wife and son it’s likely Busch wouldn’t have been there either.
“I’ve definitely won more races in a season, but I don’t think anything tops this year,” Busch said. “This is certainly pretty special.”