This is the second of Race Chaser Online’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship 4 previews. Tune in to the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday at 3 p.m. (NBC, NBCSN Hot Pass, MRN, SiriusXM) to find out which of the four drivers earns the right to hoist the Sprint Cup on the championship stage.
MIAMI, Fla. — staff report — Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
On Sunday afternoon, millions of Americans will sit in their homes, turn on the television to NBC and possibly have a bowl of M&M’S Crispy available for their watch party as they tune in to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 Championship race (3 p.m. ET) at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’S Crispy Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), the race might also feel a whole lot like a movie with hopes of a storybook ending — perhaps a Sunday-afternoon matinee?
The only difference is, this movie’s plot is so improbable, even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t make it up.
The movie began with Busch’s injury in the season-opening NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway in February. The injuries — a broken right leg and a broken left foot — kept him out for the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup season. Upon his return, Busch kept adding to the script, winning four out of five races during a blazing hot summer stretch, but not without some other adversity along the way.
After returning in May, Busch needed a win, along with enough points to make it into the top-30 in the driver standings in order to make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. However, after a disappointing 43rd-place finish at Michigan International Speedway in June, Busch had no wins and was in a deep hole in his quest to crack the top-30 as he sat 173 points behind the 30th-place driver.
Not about to give up, Busch, crew chief Adam Stevens and the entire M&M’S Crispy team rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Using the off weekend following Michigan as a point to refocus, the team turned around its season in late June by winning at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. The win started the aforementioned remarkable streak of four wins in five weeks, including three in a row at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Just five races later, Busch had enough points to clinch a top-30 spot in the standings following the 25th race of the season at Darlington Raceway. With the Chase starting two races later, Busch and his team rolled up their sleeves again, putting in a workmanlike Chase filled with five top-five finishes and six top-10s in order to make it to the Championship Round this weekend at Homestead.
Nine months after injuries had seemingly put an end to Busch’s championship hopes in 2015, the comeback was complete. The driver says that while the year has been “different,” that he is thankful to have a shot entering the 36th and final race of the season.
“It’s been a different year, I would say, than years past, but I’m just happy for the way things … turned out,” Busch said of the year. “Obviously we had a dismal start there in Daytona – unfortunate circumstances kind of had me hindered for the first part of the season. But my guys never gave up. They had David Ragan in the car, Matt Crafton and Erik Jones, and they persevered through all of that and we were able to keep motivation going and keep a strong team lined up for when I was able to return.”
“When I came back we did a good job and we won four out of five and put ourselves in a position to make the Chase and the rules are the way the rules are and we’re going to make the most of it. We’re playing with house money and we’re rolling to Homestead.”
While Busch does not have any Homestead wins, he’s run much better there than his results have shown. This is the first time in his 11-year Sprint Cup career that he has entered the final race eligible for the Sprint Cup championship.
Busch dominated the 267-lap season finale in 2012, leading six times for a race-high 191 laps. But while he had the dominant car, the Las Vegas native had to settle for a fourth-place finish after a long, green-flag run to the checkered flag saw the M&M’S team come up short on fuel and foiled a seemingly certain win in the closing laps. He backed up his strong run from 2012 with an eighth-place finish in 2013, and had a strong run going last year before a driveline issue put him in the garage for several laps, foiling another chance at the win.
Busch says that while Homestead has not changed much in recent years, it will still be an animal all its own as the four title contenders vie for the Sprint Cup.
“It’s not an easy joint, for sure,” the Las Vegas, Nev. driver admitted. “[Over the past few races], the track seems to have aged a little more and maybe the tire compound could use a little bit of help to be better there just because we’ve run the same one, I think now, three or four years. The tire compound is fine – it’s not that big of a deal — it’s definitely a lot of grip for the first few laps and then it really tapers off and then everybody is running up next to the fence. I think that’s what we saw in years past. As it did get darker, the track seemed to widen out. It’s just during the day, when it’s hot out and it’s slick out, that the best you can do is run right next to the wall. As the nighttime came, you could start moving around a little bit more.”
“It’s definitely still a racey joint, but track temperatures are very conducive to that. Our M&M’S Camry was pretty good the last couple of years, but we would like to finish it off the right way with a Sprint Cup championship this weekend.”
Busch enters Homestead the lone Toyota entry vying for this year’s title. Busch now has a shot to battle fellow title contenders Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. in a one-race, winner-take-all finale that will certainly be worthy of a Hollywood movie.
And he also recognizes that his plot line isn’t the only one worthy of a fairytale script if it were to play out on Sunday night.
“The three guys I’m racing with, it’s so cool the storylines that you’re going with there,” Busch added. “You’ve got the past champion from last year, Kevin Harvick, who’s probably the most dominant car each and every week — the most consistent car. You have Jeff Gordon, who has his own story that he wants to put a [cap on] with … his fifth championship. And, of course the dark horse, Martin Truex Jr., being a single-car team and being as stout as they are with Furniture Row, it’s pretty cool to see.”
“I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to going out there and performing with those guys and racing them and being the lone Toyota. It’s going to be cool to see that Toyota bug whip the other guys and take home this championship for Toyota and everyone at M&M’S.”
So, as Busch heads to South Florida with a lot on the line, it will be time to sit back and enjoy the Sunday-afternoon matinee.
And while the outcome is far from assured, the bulk of the season-long “movie” has certainly been worth the price of admission.
NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications and True Speed Communications for Joe Gibbs Racing material contributed to this report.