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Busch wins first title; clutch down stretch

The last time Kurt Busch cried in Victory Lane, it was partly because he realized he was one of the most hated drivers in NASCAR.

When the tears flowed Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it could have been because Busch realized it doesn’t matter if he’s popular.

Love him or hate him, Busch is a NASCAR champion.

The brash young driver wrapped up his first title Sunday by outdriving nine other rivals in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.

It capped a rollercoaster ride for Busch, a 26-year-old Las Vegas native considered an outsider in NASCAR. He doesn’t look like the other competitors, he doesn’t talk like them, and, because he often comes across as cocky and arrogant, he isn’t embraced like them.

When he was viciously booed after winning Bristol Motor Speedway last season — one week after Jimmy Spencer punched him in the face following a race — it became clear that Busch was NASCAR’s newest villain.

Funny how none of that matters when the shiny silver Nextel Cup championship is sitting at your feet.

“It took me some time to understand the bigger picture,” he said. “Just to be able to understand the bigger ethic and the bigger picture about racing at this level is one thing that I misunderstood the first couple of years.”

Recognizing that was the key to Busch rising to the top of NASCAR in just his fourth season.

He won the title by eight points over Jimmie Johnson — a difference of just two places in the season-ending race — and 16 over Jeff Gordon.

The dramatic finish was a fitting end to a new 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship.

After years of lackluster championship battles, Busch came into the finale leading Johnson by 18 points and Gordon by 21, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin also outside shots at the title.

Johnson and Gordon were racing for car owner Rick Hendrick, who lost four family members and valued employees when a plane crashed Oct. 24 en route to a race in Virginia.

But in a way, Busch was racing for Hendrick, as well. His younger brother, Kyle, drives for Hendrick in the Busch Series.

“I’m choked up because there nothing harder in the NASCAR community than what we had to go through a couple weeks ago with Hendrick and the problem they had,” Busch said. “I love them truly and I want to dedicate anything I can from this championship to them. My little brother was affected by this, so it hit home.”

That’s the maturity that had been lacking in Busch before.

The talent was always there — he has 11 Nextel Cup victories — but he was unpolished and inconsistent. Add it all up, and Busch was unable to win a title under NASCAR’s points system.

But then NASCAR changed the rules, and it suited Busch’s style perfectly.

More reserved since his feud with Spencer led sponsor Sharpie to make him take a “career counseling” course, he stayed low under the radar until the Chase began.

Then he made his move, and dodged every speed bump along the way, including breaking a wheel and losing a tire midway through Sunday’s race.

“I was in stitches, sick to my stomach the last few laps,” Busch said. “I had been out there forever. I felt like I had the whole world on my shoulders and at the same time I felt I was alone.

“So many emotions today. To be able to pull through like we did and cap off an unbelievable season, it’s just a great season.”

Some will argue that it’s not, that the championship race was manufactured by France.

He scrapped a system used for two decades to create a battle that came down to the final lap of the final race.

Boy, did he succeed.

Busch, Gordon and Johnson jockeyed for position for every one of the 271 laps. Every spot was critical, every point furiously calculated by their car owners and crew chiefs.

When the race went into overtime because a late caution made it impossible to finish in the original 267 laps, everyone strapped in for what was sure to be a wild shootout to the end.

The contenders stacked up in a line, fender-to-fender, knowing what was at stake. Gordon was in third, Johnson was in fourth and Busch in fifth.

Busch’s part was easy — stay out of trouble over the final four laps and the title was his.

Gordon and Johnson, who came in trailing Busch in the standings, knew they had to do much more: One of them needed to win the race to wrap up the title.

The field got the green flag, and the desperation was obvious in Gordon and Johnson, teammates and the closest of friends. Their Chevrolets darted to the bottom of the track, then back to the top, each looking for the tiniest bit of room to squeeze through. Johnson found a hole and skyrocketed past Gordon.

Neither of them saw Greg Biffle, Busch’s teammate, race past them and steadily pull away.

With Biffle stealing the win they needed, and Busch staying pat in fifth place, the championship was over.

“We beat the best of the best over 10 races, and to have my name along the best names in history, it means so much to me,” Busch said.

Nothing could stop Busch from winning the title. Not a blown motor in Atlanta, not spinning out in Kansas, not wrecking in Charlotte, not even a wheel falling off in the biggest race of his life.

“This is what a team does to win a championship — they persevere,” Busch said. “All year long, we’ve done things like this. Whether we put ourselves in a hole or whether we had a small problem.”

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