‘This one feels like the first’: Kyle Busch silences critics with second NASCAR Cup title

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Kyle Busch couldn't help but make a sarcastic joke. 

"Oh, I won a full-time championship? What do you know?" he said after winning the second NASCAR Cup Series championship of his career Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  

Busch earned his first title in 2015, but his biggest critics in NASCAR's fan base said he was not worthy of winning and still question the legitimacy of it because he missed the first 11 races of that Cup season after breaking his right leg and fracturing his left foot in a wreck during the closing laps of the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

He didn't compete in nearly a third of the 2015 season, but NASCAR granted him a waiver allowing him to still be championship eligible. And then he won it all.

"This is great because that always did bother Kyle a little bit," Samantha Busch, Kyle's wife, told USA TODAY Sports and a few other media outlets Sunday after the family celebrated his second title. "People were like, ‘That wasn’t real. You didn’t run all the races. It doesn’t count.’ So, now what? He ran all the races this year, he was the regular season’s point champion. …

"It always had a little star by it, I think, for him, so I think this one’s going to take time to set in, and he’s gonna know he did it."

Busch and the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team not only won the 2019 title, but they also won the Ford EcoBoost 400 when they only had to finish higher than the other championship hopefuls. Martin Truex Jr. finished second, while Kevin Harvick was fourth and Denny Hamlin 10th.

This season, Busch competed in all 36 races and won five. But there are still some peculiar similarities to his 2015 championship run, specifically his winless streaks leading up to victories at Homestead. It all feels "awfully familiar," he said.

Four years ago after Busch returned from his injuries, he won four of five races between June and July and then went on a 15-race winless streak until he took the checkered flag in the championship race. Getting off to a comparably hot start, though healthy, he won three of five early on — including his 200th win across NASCAR's three national series — a fourth in June and then rode a 21-race winless streak into Homestead.

"It felt a lot like 2015 to me, aside from the broken leg, obviously," crew chief Adam Stevens said.

"(We) had a couple races get away from us," he said, comparing the two championship seasons. "But it wasn't because we weren't fast. It wasn't because we weren't prepared. They just didn't go our way."

Kyle Busch celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)

Despite being one of the most talented drivers on the track, the winless streak led to Busch being perceived as the underdog against Truex, Hamlin and Harvick, who all won at least one playoff race. 

In another similarity to 2015, Samantha said people overlooked her husband in both championship seasons, first because he missed so many races and then because he went more than five months without a trip to victory lane.

"You know Kyle likes to prove people wrong," she said. "I think he took that, internalized it (and) used it to fuel him instead of bring him back."

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