Sports

Chasing the Dream: Kyle Busch Wins the Chase for the Sprint Cup

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

By Brian Brownfield-

In the second season of NASCAR’s new playoff format, the scene was set for a perfect finish. Four drivers were competing to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup title, and each of them entered with an incredible story. There was defending champion Kevin Harvick looking to become the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles in 2006-2010. There was Martin Truex Jr. who had never finished in the top-10 in the points standings, but was positioned to win the championship for his girlfriend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. There was Kyle Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season with a broken leg and foot, but won three consecutive races to get into the Chase playoffs. Then there was Jeff Gordon, winner of 93 career races and four championships, in the final race of his historic career. Somebody had to win. That somebody was Kyle Busch.

When the season began in February with the Daytona 500, NASCAR was missing one of its most vibrant stars. Kyle Busch is one of few NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who also competes in NASCAR’s minor league circuit, the Xfinity Series. In the opening race of this series, Busch was involved in a large wreck that not only damaged his car, but also his lower body. His car rammed into an unprotected wall on the course, one that does not have extra foam padding to lessen any potential blow. The result was a broken leg and foot, and his entire season was left in doubt. Sure, his return was imminent, but it seemed highly unlikely that he would have enough time to accumulate enough points in order to be eligible for Chase.

The new format for Chase may seem complicated, but when broken down, it can be simple enough to understand. There are 36 races in the NASCAR season. The first 26 are the “regular season,” with the final 10 races being Chase, or the “playoffs.” If a driver wins a race in the first 26, they automatically qualify for one of the 16 spots in Chase playoff. If the 16 Chase playoff spots are not filled up with drivers who won races during the season, the remaining spots are filled with drivers who have accumulated the most points without a win. Points are awarded each race based on a driver’s finish.

Yes, Busch did win four races in a five week stretch during the summer, but he was not awarded an automatic berth. Why? The Chase format specifies that all drivers with a win will be entered into the playoffs, but only if they are in the top-30 in points too. This is to ensure that no drivers who only enter into a few races will be eligible for the playoffs. Busch was still below the points-cutoff entering the final race of the “regular season,” but a second place finish at Richmond was enough to get him into the top-30 and into the Chase.

Photo courtesy of Fox Sports

Photo courtesy of Fox Sports

Entering the Chase finale in Homestead, a solid case could have been made for any of the four drivers still eligible to win. Kevin Harvick arguably had the fastest car of the season. During a seven-race stretch that began at the end of last season and carried over into this season, Harvick finished either first or second. Furthermore, over the season’s first 14 races, Harvick finished outside of the top-10 just once, with a top-2 finish 11 times. This kind of dominance shows the determination and desire of Harvick and his crew to improve from the season before when he won the Sprint Cup title. Statistically, he was the most consistent driver on the track all season. In 36 races, he finished in the top-5 23 times, and in the top-10 28 times.

Martin Truex Jr. entered this season looking to raise the bar from his 2014 campaign that was an absolute disaster. Last year was his first time racing for his new Furniture Row race team, and it left serious doubt about his ability to compete with the best drivers in NASCAR. Truex Jr. did not win a race, had only one top-5 finish, and only led one lap during the entire year. Surely he couldn’t contend for the title, right? Wrong. Truex Jr. opened up the season on fire, finishing in the top-10 in each of the first seven races, and 15 of the first 16. He won at Pocono in June to lock up his Chase playoff spot, and was consistent enough down the stretch to make it to the finale. As if this wasn’t enough motivation, his longtime girlfriend was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer at the end of the 2014 season. Her appendix, spleen, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and part of her stomach were all removed to try and curb the disease. Truex Jr. wasn’t racing for himself, he was racing for her.

This article would be remiss without mentioning the other competitor for the title, Jeff Gordon. Entering the season, he announced it would be the last of his historic 23-year career that saw him win 93 races, the third most all-time. He won four championships, in 1995, 1997, 1998, and 2001. A few seasons ago, his career appeared to start fading. He went nearly 80 races without winning a race. In 2014, his career was revived when he won three races and was a contender for the Chase title. This year, he didn’t win a race during the “regular season,” but he was solid enough to make it into the Chase based on his points. He kept surviving every race until a late-October race in Martinsville, a place where Gordon had dominated his entire career. Here, Gordon won his 93rd career race and guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase finale. He was as happy as anyone could remember, and with his family in attendance, he had a bit of extra fuel to push for a fifth championship.

Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing

Photo courtesy of Joe Gibbs Racing

The race in Homestead saw each of the four drivers eligible for the title lead at some point. The early portion of the race was dominated by Joey Logano, who surprisingly missed out on an opportunity for the championship after having a string of poor finishes to finish the season. Logano led for 72 laps before Jeff Gordon passed him for the lead, and the fans in Homestead went bonkers. It was clear who the favorite driver was. However, Gordon led for only nine laps and would not be seen in the lead again. Brad Keselowski led a race high 86 of 267 laps, but was not eligible for the title since he needed to win the race before but came in second. It looked like it might be his race to win, but then Kyle Busch came alive. Busch passed Keselowski with 41 laps to go and did not look back. He pulled ahead and won the race by an easy margin over Kevin Harvick, who finished second. Jeff Gordon finished sixth and Truex Jr. finished 12th.

Was it the perfect way to end the season? Don’t ask me, I’m a diehard Jeff Gordon fan! Nonetheless, the fastest car won the race, and Kyle Busch was one of the most dominant drivers upon returning from his injury. One thing is for certain, the NASCAR Chase playoff format makes the end of the NASCAR season much more exciting. In a world of sports where “winner-take-all” playoffs exist, NASCAR needed something to make the sport more enticing. This did the trick. Now, as we wait for the 2016 season to arrive, we must first survive a long, cold winter. One with no racing to heat us up.

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