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‘This one’s for Rowdy Nation!’ Busch caps season with second title

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The Candy Man can. And did.

Kyle Busch secured his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, besting perhaps the most impressive field of championship contenders in the six-year history of the elimination-style playoffs.

Busch outran fellow finalists Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., winning the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 on the strength of a clever pit strategy and a car that came to life under the lights. Hamlin was making his first Championship 4 appearance since 2014, while Harvick and Truex were making return trips to the finale.

“We have a great race team and a great owner,” an emotional Busch said after climbing from his car. “Everybody always says you never give up and we’re no different,. Sometimes we may not be the best, sometimes we may not have the right track position. Today we had a really good car and I could race around and move around.

“There’s always your doubters, there’s always your haters,” Busch said smiling. “You know what? This one’s for the Rowdy Nation. You guys are the best. Thank you so much.”

Busch had claimed the series’ regular-season championship in September, building a stockpile of playoff points that guided him to his fifth straight appearance in the Championship 4 field. The 34-year-old driver also won the title in NASCAR’s premier series in 2015, the second year of the elimination format.

Sunday’s march to the title capped a brilliant — and sometimes, difficult — year for the driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota. A four-win regular season marked his fifth straight year with multiple victories in NASCAR’s top series, but Busch entered the Miami race winless since early June. That skid, plus a dominant Round of 8 from all three of his title competitors, put “Rowdy” and the No. 18 team flying under the radar for championship weekend.

“We had a cold spell there,” crew chief Adam Stevens. “It’s been well-documented, believe it or not. Quite a few questions about it. Felt a little bit like 2015 to me. Take the broken legs out of the equation. We were hot early in 2015 when Kyle came back. We didn’t win since Indy that year, then came to Homestead and got the job done.”

Busch also scored four Xfinity Series wins and five victories in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, totals that helped him surpass 200 career wins in NASCAR national series competition in March.

The year was not without tragedy, though. Joe Gibbs’ son J.D., co-founder of Joe Gibbs Racing, died in January after complications after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.

“It’s been a difficult time,” Busch said. “To be able to reward them with a championship, I don’t know how much it means to them, but it’s the best I can do. I know JD was looking down on us all season long.”

Busch becomes the 16th driver with more than one premier series championship. Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson is the only other active driver with multiple titles on his resume. Busch also is the first repeat champion in the elimination-style postseason.

Both championships came with Stevens calling the shots on the pit box. The 41-year-old crew chief raced dirt late models before starting his NASCAR career as a fabricator with Richard Petty Motorsports.

Busch’s first title was a story of resilience as he recovered from severe leg and foot injuries after a crash in the season-opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway. He missed 11 races but met the criteria for a playoff waiver in a big way, winning five races on his path to a title-clinching performance at Homestead.

Busch also is a former champion of what is now called the NASCAR Xfinity Series, riding a nine-win season to that tour’s title in 2009.