HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — When he crashed into a concrete wall at Daytona, Kyle Busch knew instantly his right leg and left foot were broken.
His first thought was that his career was over.
“I was really worried. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car again,’” Busch said. “It did cross my mind, I was thinking, ‘My wife’s pregnant and I got no job.’ I think that’s just the emotion that goes through in that moment.”
Busch completed a comeback for the ages on Sunday when he won at Homestead-Miami Speedway to earn his first Sprint Cup championship. It came nine months after his crash into a concrete wall the day before the Daytona 500 — a wreck that forced NASCAR to make serious safety improvements across the circuit.
Busch watched the season opener from a hospital bed, had multiple surgeries and withstood a grueling rehabilitation program. He wound up missing just 11 races and returned to his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota right before his 30th birthday and right before wife Samantha gave birth to their first child, a son.
In the hours after that February crash at Daytona, no one predicted he’d end the year as champion.
“I was just terrified that he was really, really in bad shape,” said crew chief Adam Stevens. “I didn’t know what shape his legs were in, if it was going to be this year or next year, or if he would walk again.”
But once he was back in the car, there was no stopping Busch.
He reeled off four wins in five weeks to earn a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, then weathered three rounds of eliminations to knock Kevin Harvick from his perch as reigning champion. Busch also denied Jeff Gordon a fifth crown in his final race.
Harvick finished a distant second, Gordon was sixth, and Martin Truex Jr., the fourth driver in the championship field, finished 12th.
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. He’s the most successful driver in the second-tier Xfinity Series and on Friday he captured his fourth owners’ championship in the Truck Series.
“All he’s been through this year, nobody’s more deserving than him,” Gordon said about the new champion.
A look at some notable news from NASCAR’s final race of 2016:
GIBBS’ CHAMPIONSHIPS: Maybe it’s time Joe Gibbs got a new nickname.
The man they call “Coach” now has more NASCAR championships than Super Bowl trophies.
Gibbs won his fourth career Cup title Sunday when driver Kyle Busch won the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gibbs won championships with Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005.
Gibbs formed his own race team in 1992, a year before he ended his first stint with the Washington Redskins.
He led the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles (1982, 1987 and 1991).
“Nothing bigger in sports has ever happened to me,” the 74-year-old Gibbs said.
NO REPEAT: At the start of the Chase, a confident Kevin Harvick said about the dominant Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, “We’re going to pound them into the ground.”
Well, it was Busch and Gibbs that toppled Harvick.
“Way to go KyleBusch. Way to “pound em into the ground” #champs,” JGR teammate Denny Hamlin tweeted.
Harvick failed in his bid to win back-to-back Sprint Cup championships, settling for yet another runner-up finish. He settled for his whopping 13th second-place finish of the season.
TRUEX STRUGGLES: With only three career wins in 369 races, Martin Truex Jr. never really found a sustained hot streak and finished 12th.
Truex won at Pocono Raceway and set career highs of 22 top 10s and eight top fives.
“We struggled all weekend with the car,” Truex said. “We just kept throwing stuff at it and could never get it anywhere near what we needed. I’m not sure what we were missing, but we were missing something.”
NASCAR NFL: NBC made the decision to go beyond its 7 p.m. window and stick with the race through its conclusion.
The network also aired much of the championship celebration before switching over for 35 minutes of “Football Night in America.” NFL fans complained on social media, prompting race team Stewart-Haas Racing to tweet, “Dear NFL fans. You had football Thursday. You had football today. You have football tonight. You have football Monday night. Chill.”