Busch breaks into winner's circle, defends Bristol victory

Sunday, March 23rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) _ His tires were worn out, his gas tank was nearly empty and his crew chief wanted him to pit. Kurt Busch overruled him and the gamble paid off for his long-awaited first victory of the year.

Busch, a runner-up three times this season, earned his first win of the year Sunday and defended his Food City 500 title by gambling on pit strategy and avoiding all but one of the 17 cautions at Bristol Motor Speedway.

``I'm out here having fun, living a dream and driving cars for a living,'' Busch said. ``I don't know what it is about me, I don't know what it is about Bristol. I love this place and I love that I got another win.''

Busch got this one without any bumping, banging or late-race dramatics.

Coming off last week's thrilling door-to-door battle with Ricky Craven that he lost, Busch had little competition as his Ford Taurus led the final 96 laps and easily held off Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth by .390 seconds.

``Kurt Busch is awesome, so awesome,'' crew chief Jimmy Fenning said. ``He gets up on the wheel and drives the hell out of that race car, and he made a call today that won him the race.''

Because of 17 cautions _ three short of the race record _ the long green-flag runs were rare. When competition stayed clean long enough for 129 uninterrupted laps, cars had to start ducking off the track for pit stops.

Those who had enough fuel kept running, hoping and praying for a caution, while the drivers who had to stop fell a lap behind the leaders.

When Dale Jarrett finally hit the wall 109 laps from the finish, there were only five cars on the lead lap and all needed to pit. It was the break they needed, and Busch capitalized by bringing his car in for service then passing Bobby Labonte for the lead on the restart.

``We actually cut that closer than you think,'' Busch said. ``I was told to pit two laps before and I saw debris in Turn 2. I took it upon myself to stay out on the race track. Sometimes it takes that gut instinct behind the wheel to know when to stay out.''

Labonte was third in a Chevrolet, Ricky Rudd finished fourth in a Ford, Roush Racing rookie Greg Biffle was fifth and Sterling Marlin scored his highest finish of the season by coming in sixth in a Dodge.

The ending lacked the drama of last year, when Busch scored his first career victory by knocking Jimmy Spencer out of his way.

This year, he stayed patient as he coasted around the .533-mile bullring _ he spun out once midway through _ and let the bumping and banging go on behind him.

``You watch all these wrecks and the cars as they go by and you keep praying you are on the right side when the smoke clears,'' Busch said. ``For the most part, we were.''

Of the 17 cautions, only one was serious.

Kyle Petty needed help getting out of his car after he hit the wall with 75 laps to go. Walking tenderly, he was placed on a stretcher and taken to Bristol Regional Medical Center for evaluation, was treated and released.

Contact probably played a part in the finish. Kenseth and Labonte bumped on the final restart with 18 laps to go, preventing either from mounting a challenge for Busch.

``Me and Bobby had to go there a little at the end and I got my fender knocked in there a little,'' Kenseth said. ``I was hoping I could make a run at Kurt before that happened.''

But it was good enough for Kenseth to retain his lead in the standings. He leads Busch by 138 points.

And Labonte was satisfied with his finish after his share of on-track problems.

``It was great, it was better than great,'' Labonte said. ``I spun out twice and finished third. That's a pretty great day.''

As always, there were numerous angry drivers during and after the race.

Jerry Nadeau was furious when, running in fourth place at the time, he made contact with the lapped car of Ryan Newman and wrecked out.

Nadeau sprinted over to Newman's pit, angrily shouting and gesturing at crew chief Matt Borland. Crew members stepped in front of Nadeau and forced him out of their area.

Defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart made it clear he wasn't too happy with Rudd after Rudd pinched him against the wall as the two tried to avoid Jamie McMurray's disabled car.

After righting his Chevrolet, Stewart ran up onto Rudd's bumper and forced the nose of his car under Rudd's in a continuous bump as the two circled the track.

``I don't know what was on his mind. There was a wreck and we tried to avoid it,'' Rudd said. ``I'm not sure what he was doing and I'm not sure he knew what he was doing. I think when he calmed down, he figured out it was pretty stupid.''