Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HOMESTEAD, FL – It was a case of winner take-all throughout NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Sunday night it was Kyle Busch who claimed both the race trophy and his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season championship.
His commanding 4.578-second victory over Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones makes Busch only the second multi-time Cup champion currently in the sport. Jimmie Johnson, who did not qualify for this year’s Playoffs, has won seven Cup titles matching the all-time series championship record held by NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
And while Busch’s Margin of Victory would indicate a seemingly dominant day, the truth is the four title contenders – Busch, Truex, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth and the third JGR driver, Denny Hamlin, who finished 10th – all kept Sunday’s contest honest. Although each of the four led multiple laps, in the end it was a competition between the JGR teammates Busch and Truex for the big trophy.
Busch led the race five times for 120 laps and Truex held point four times for 103 laps. Truex won Stage 1 and Busch won Stage 2. Busch took the lead for good with 44 laps remaining and his win earned the Gibbs’ team its 19th overall victory, it’s best single season output.
For Busch, who won the regular season championship with four wins but hadn’t hoisted a trophy since early June, this was a huge affirmation of drive and talent.
“Everybody always says you never give up and we’re no different,” Busch said. “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. That’s what’s so special about Homestead-Miami Speedway, is the ability to put on a show.
“There’s always your doubters, there’s always your haters,” Busch said smiling. “You know what, this one’s for the Rowdy Nation because you guys are the best. Thank you so much.
It was an action-packed afternoon for the championship foursome – on track and in the pits. And the pit action arguably was as decisive as the work on track.
Truex had to recover from a rare but major pit road miscue. While pitting on Lap 121, the normally Straight-A No. 19 pit crew mistakenly put the right side front tire on the left side of Truex’s Toyota and the left side tire on the right side. He had to come back in and get that corrected, ultimately going down a lap. But he was the “lucky dog” – first car a lap down – on a caution flag 17 laps later. That put him back on the lead lap and he worked his way forward from there coming up just short – the championship runner-up for the second straight season.
After climbing out of car on pit road after the race, Truex leaned back against the driver’s side window before taking questions from reporters – the frustration and disappointment obvious.
“These things don’t come around every day,” the 2017 champion said. “Second two years in a row definitely stings a little, but the fact that we have one is still really a big deal. It’s hard to win these things.
“Congrats to Kyle and the 18 guys. It’s a huge accomplishment just to get here I feel like. Yes, sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. It just wasn’t our day.”
Pearn was equally unhappy and said he can only remember that kind of random mistake happening once before – years ago at Pocono, Pa.
“Tough to swallow,” Pearn said. “I felt like everyone did a great job and executed set-up wise and car-wise. Credit to the 18 team [Busch] they did a great job and you can’t take away anything from what they did.”
Hamlin, who started from pole position, also had a pit issue when his team decided to gamble with a large piece of tape on the front grill that instead of helping, ended up causing the car to overheat and smoke. He had to pit briefly in the waning laps to get that off. He went back on track in 19th position with 46 laps remaining and still rallied to a 10th-place finish.
NBA legend and Hamlin’s close friend Michael Jordan was on hand at Homestead to help Hamlin celebrate should he earn his first series title.
The only member of the Championship 4 without a series championship yet, Hamlin was understandably disappointed with the outcome – but he was also notably positive after the race, choosing to focus on the success this year, heartened by how close he came to the big trophy.
He won six races, including his second Daytona 500, led the championship standings at one point during the Playoffs and earned his Homestead shot with a fantastic must-win clutch victory at Phoenix a week ago.
“I told you at the beginning of the week, we’re going to celebrate our year,” Hamlin said. “Our year was fantastic in every way you can think of, and it just didn’t pan out in one race in our favor.
And, he added, “I’m excited about next year, I really am. It’s not like I’m going to go through the off-season upset or sad. I’m looking forward to having the momentum that we took through this year with a first-year crew chief and we’re going to win a lot, like a lot, next year.
“I just think that we’ll have another opportunity. There’s no question.”