Until Sunday, Kyle Busch's career still came with an asterisk. A but. A what-if.
Those are gone now, left behind forever in the wake of a slow late-autumn cruise around a South Florida racetrack, father and son grinning ear-to-ear in their Toyota Camry, beneath a flag that read "2019 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Champion."
Busch, 34, had just earned his fifth victory of the season and the 56th of his career, moving into sole possession of ninth place on NASCAR's all-time wins list. He is already the all-time leader in Xfinity Series wins, having nearly doubled up on Hall of Famer Mark Martin with 96 to Martin's 49. He also owns the most Truck series trophies, with 56, five more than another Hall of Famer, Ron Hornaday Jr.
Busch ranks 10th in Cup series laps led (17,432), 11th in second-place finishes (50), 15th in top-5s (200), and has won 10% of the races he has started since making his Cup debut in 2004 at 18, two years after making his Truck series bow at the age of 16.
That's how long the NASCAR fan base has known about Kyle Busch, for 18 years, longer than he'd been alive when we first met him. He was the snarky punk little brother of Kurt. Now, he's a happily married father, businessman and reality show star. The snark still shows up from time to time, but it's no longer the baseline for his life. He has literally grown up before our eyes.
Perhaps the length and breadth of that relationship is why his mountains of incredible statistics don't draw the praise that they should. We've become too used to him winning races -- we moved past being excited by it long ago. Kyle Busch winning a race is like the sun coming up or the rain falling. It just happens. It always happens. It has been a steady part of everyone's auto racing life since before there were smartphones or Marvel movies.
That's why that asterisk, but and what-if have been there, no matter how unreasonable they'd become.
Kyle Busch has won more NASCAR national series races than any human who has ever walked the surface of this planet ... but ... he had only one championship?! What if he never won another? Doesn't that deserve an asterisk that separates him from all of those other names in his neighborhood on all of those other all-time lists? Petty, Pearson, Gordon, Earnhardt, Johnson, Yarborough, Waltrip ... could he really be allowed to stand among them with only one paltry Cup series title?
Now that talk can be checked into the same retirement home where the "He'll never mature" and "He'll never be able to put a complete spring-to-fall season together" and "He'll never play well with teammates" conversations have all been sent over the years.
This season provided the perfect path for Busch to put the last remnants of those criticisms to rest. After starting the year with four wins in the first 14 races, including three of the first eight, he failed to visit Victory Lane for 21 races until his title-clinching win at Homestead-Miami Speedway. On Sunday night, crew chief Adam Stevens talked about the drought, saying that his driver's patience was certainly bent, but it never completely broke like it would have in his younger days.
During the slump, he watched his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates win nine times. New teammate Martin Truex Jr. led the series with seven wins and won three times during the NASCAR playoffs alone. Old teammate Denny Hamlin earned six wins, two in the playoffs. On Sunday night, those three took up all but one of the four championship finalist slots.
But it was Busch who prevailed in the end and Busch who graciously congratulated those two teammates as he dedicated their combined season to the memory of their former boss, J.D. Gibbs, who died in January after a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease.
"There was certainly a time when Kyle probably wouldn't have been seen as a guy who could become this mature or this great of a teammate," said Joe Gibbs, who has employed Busch since 2008 after the youngster had burned through relationships with two other NASCAR powerhouses, Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. "But my son J.D. saw that potential in him. And now that's exactly who Kyle Busch is."
He is also a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. This 2019 season was NASCAR's 70th. Over that time, only 15 drivers had earned more than one Cup series championship. Now there is a 16th.
"You guys always throw a lot of numbers at me and I can't keep up with them all," Busch said Sunday night. "But I can keep up with two. And that two is the biggest number of them all to me."
As a NASCAR fan, you don't have to like Kyle Busch, but you do have to respect him. One day, but no day soon, he will walk into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with enough trophies, checkered flags and Victory Lane memorabilia to fill his own floor of the museum.
And as of Sunday night, there won't be single asterisk, but or what-if among them.