HOMESTEAD, FLA. — Kyle Busch opened the season in a hospital bed and ended it in victory lane with the championship trophy.
Busch completed the ultimate comeback Sunday night by winning his first career Sprint Cup title just nine months after a serious crash at Daytona nearly ended his season. He crashed into a concrete wall the day before the Daytona 500 and broke his right leg and left foot.
Despite multiple surgeries and grueling rehabilitation, Busch missed only 11 races and was back in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in late May. NASCAR granted him a waiver to race for the championship if he earned a berth in the playoffs, and Busch was off and running.
"I don't know if I quite understand life yet, but there's something to be said about this year," an emotional Busch said on his team radio.
He won the season finale Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim the title, and knocked Kevin Harvick from his perch as reigning champion. Busch also denied Jeff Gordon a fifth crown in his final race. Gordon said before the season started he'd retire after this race.
Harvick finished a distant second, Gordon was a mediocre sixth and Martin Truex Jr., the fourth driver in the championship field, finished 12th.
"You always want to win, but I've learned not to be greedy," Harvick said after his 12th second-place finish of the year cost him the championship.
There was a strong sentimental push for Gordon to go out on top in his final race. But he was only average all season, and that didn't change Sunday night in front of a huge contingent of friends and family that included Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and Mario Andretti, who both sat atop his pit box at the start of the race.
Gordon led nine laps early in the race and was third for an early restart but he bobbled it and plummeted to eighth. That was about as good as he'd be the rest of the race as he struggled mightily with the handling of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
"Gosh, I'm a little disappointed, I'll be honest," Gordon said. "I thought going into the race we had something for them."
Gordon eventually made his way to victory lane to congratulate Busch, who began his career as Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. Temper tantrums and wrecked race cars led to his release before the 2008 season, and Busch has been chasing a Cup championship ever since.
"All he's been through this year, nobody's more deserving than him," Gordon said of the new champion.
Truex, the underdog driving for single-car team Furniture Row Racing, also didn't have enough in his Chevrolet to contend despite a handful of gutsy pit calls the team used out of desperation.
"We really felt like without trying something really different, we weren't going to get there," Truex said. "We felt like we had to take a really big swing at it."
That made the championship race a two-car battle between Busch and Harvick, and the outgoing champion simply didn't have enough for Busch.
Busch was headed toward the title via a second or third-place finish in the race when NASCAR called a caution for debris with 11 laps remaining. Team owner Joe Gibbs pumped his fists in frustration, but Busch remained calm in the car. The field headed to pit road, Busch asked for an adjustment, and was second on the restart with seven laps remaining.
He worked his way past leader Brad Keselowski to claim the lead, then Busch pulled away and handily beat Harvick to the finish line by 1.553 seconds.
"This is pretty unbelievable. The dream of a lifetime, a dream come true," Busch said.
The title is a sweet reward for Busch, who has made huge personal and professional gains over the last several years. Known as one of most talented drivers in the sport, his temperament often got in his own way. But he has mellowed with marriage, gained perspective after the Daytona wreck, and was determined to be on his feet in the delivery room when wife Samantha delivered their first baby, a boy born in May — right after Busch returned to the race car and celebrated his 30th birthday.
"I just can't believe it, with everything that happened this year, all the turmoil, everything I went through, my wife went through," Busch said. "I said back then, I'll say it again, the rehab and then getting back and getting focused was the hardest part, the hardest thing I've ever gone through.
"To put it all together here tonight, this night wasn't all that hard."
His title is the first for Toyota, which joined the Sprint Cup Series in 2007 and had shots at championships but came up empty again and again. It was also fitting because Joe Gibbs Racing dominated a huge portion of this season and was the overwhelming favorite to win the title with one of its four drivers.
Busch also joins older brother, Kurt, as a NASCAR champion. Kurt Busch won the title in 2004, the inaugural season of NASCAR's Chase format. The system has been tweaked several times and is in the second year of an elimination format that sends four drivers to Homestead to race for the title. The first driver to the finish line hoists the Cup, and Busch won it by winning the race, the same way Harvick did a year ago.
The title is the fourth NASCAR crown for Joe Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl winning coach, but first Cup title since 2005.