HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Kyle Busch casually collected the championship flag from his team and did a slow, subdued celebratory lap Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway. NASCAR's most polarizing driver had just won his second Cup Series title and wanted to soak in the moment with his true fans after skipping his customary bow to the crowd.
Busch asked NASCAR for permission to take his 4-year-old son along for the ride to victory lane, and when the duo finally got there it was then that the 34-year-old in his 15th full-time Cup Series season remembered he had just won both the season finale and another championship to go with his 2015 crown.
"I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that. I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and I was just like, 'Come on, man, we've still got to finish this damn thing. Don't be such a siss,'" Busch said. "Emotions were starting to set in. I probably didn't know where the hell my mind was at. I knew we had won and won big and were being a bit more subdued about it."
Busch emerged from the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut after teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were slowed by gaffes on pit road. He snapped a 21-race losing streak and beat those two plus rival Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing — they were the only four drivers eligible for the season title — to return to the top.
Busch and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson are the only active drivers with multiple titles. Busch is the 16th driver in NASCAR history to win multiple championships and one of only five to win titles on both the Cup circuit and the second-tier Xfinity Series, where he was the 2009 champ.
The JGR No. 18 Toyota Camry crew climbed over the pit wall and handed Busch the championship flag, and he was met on the front stretch by son Brexton, who immediately asked regarding their traditional celebration, "Dad, are you going to throw me in the air again?" He also asked to join his father for the final ride into victory lane.
Busch had raced for a championship in each of the past three finales and fell short a year ago in part because of his pit crew's error. This time, it was Hamlin and Truex bitten by silly mistakes. Truex dominated early but fell a lap back after his crew put tires on the wrong side of his Toyota.
"You've got to be perfect. One mistake probably cost us the championship," said Truex, the 2017 champion. "I've never had that happen. I don't even know what to say. It doesn't drive good with the left front on the right front, though, I can tell you that. It's very tight."
Hamlin, the only one of the foursome without a title, fell out of contention when an aggressive aerodynamic gamble backfired because a large piece of tape placed across the front of his car caused its engine to overheat. Hamlin had to make an unscheduled pit stop to remove the tape.
Truex recovered to finish second, but Hamlin didn't have enough time to overcome the miscue and was a disappointing 10th.
"I feel like I did all I could. I don't feel I could have done a better job. I didn't leave anything out there," Hamlin said. "I was thinking we got a chance and it just didn't work out. We got a little aggressive there and it cost us."
Harvick, the only Ford driver in the championship field, never had anything on long runs for the JGR cars and finished fourth.
"On the restarts I could do what I wanted to do and hold them off for 15 or 20 laps," the 2014 champion said. "This race has come down to that every year. You kind of play toward that, and they were quite a bit better than us on the long run."
Las Vegas couldn't choose a title favorite as the four had essentially even odds at the start of the race, even though Busch was probably the least likely contender of the group. Although he finished first in the regular-season standings, his most recent Cup Series win was in June, his playoff run leading into the finale had been mediocre at best and his mood soured with every missed victory.
In the nine playoff races before the finale, Truex had three wins, Hamlin two and Harvick one.
"Our year was fantastic in every way you can think of, and it just didn't pan out in one race in our favor," said Hamlin, who won the Daytona 500 and five other races a year removed from a winless season.
Busch was flawless Sunday, though, leading a race-high 120 laps.