5-10-08 -- The crowd booed him. He called his car pathetic. His crew missed a lug nut, and he couldn’t stay off Darlington Raceway’s wall.
Despite it all, Kyle Busch found Victory Lane once again.
NASCAR’s least popular driver raced to his third Sprint Cup Series victory of the season Saturday night, winning a battle of attrition at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
“How many times did I hit the wall? I don’t know, one, two, three, four, probably five or six,” Busch said. “I’ve got to thank my team, they build them as strong as they can for me, ‘cause I like to knock the walls down with them.”
Busch’s victory hardly thrilled the crowd, which viciously booed him in prerace introductions and hadn’t softened by the time he took the checkered flag. Already loathed by many, he enraged Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s massive fan base by wrecking him as they raced for the win last week in Richmond.
It created a frenzy of hatred toward Busch, but the 23-year-old driver tuned it out and focused on what he does best: winning races.
The win was his eighth of the season spanning NASCAR’s top three series, and he has won most of them in very convincing fashion. This one was no different, as Busch led a race-high 169 of the 367 laps in a Toyota he described early in the race as the “most pathetic” he’d ever driven.
He also overcame every speed bump thrown his way to become the youngest winner on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
“Darlington showed again tonight it’s one of the hardest places. Always has been, always will be,” Busch said in Victory Lane. “We’re going to go through a lot of Mac tools trying to fix this thing, but that’s OK. They gave me such a race car.”
An offseason repaving project smoothed the asphalt on the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile superspeedway, and the new surface gave the entire field fits. It made the track extremely fast and grippy, forcing Goodyear to bring a very sturdy tire that could handle the speeds and survive long runs.
The combination of the smooth surface, hard tires and narrow racing line put passing at a premium, and forced several drivers into the wall for the infamous “Darlington stripe.”
Busch was no exception, bouncing hard off of it at least twice in what was an eventful fight to the finish. He was leading early in the race but was penalized when his crew left a lug nut off his rear wheel following a pit stop, dropping him to 29th.
He battled his way back to the front, patiently picking off Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt and finally seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon to reclaim the top position. From there, the kid who chases the checkered flag every time he’s on the track pulled away, forcing spotter Jeff Dickerson to beg him to slow down a mere 50 laps from the finish.
“I know you are digging, dude, but you’ve got to take care of that thing there,” Dickerson radioed. “You’re scaring the fans. There’s not enough security up the Turn 2 wall. Just nice and easy.”
But Busch isn’t capable of going slow, and he stayed on the gas until the finish while stretching his Sprint Cup Series lead to 79 points over Jeff Burton.
“I can’t tell you how many times he tried to give the race away by slamming into the wall, his right side was destroyed,” Gordon said.
Carl Edwards finished second and was pleased with the outcome after initially loathing the new surface.
“Kyle had the best car. He was pretty unbeatable,” Edwards said.
He was followed by Gordon, who was happy with the finish but frustrated he’s still searching for his first win of the season.
“We know we have some work to do,” Gordon said.
Earnhardt finished fourth, David Ragan was fifth and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin—Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. Travis Kvapil, Dave Blaney and Burton rounded out the top 10.
Almost every driver struggled in some sense, and the problems started early, with Elliott Sadler losing control of his car on the second lap of the race— squeezing Tony Stewart into the Turn 1 wall.
“I just made a huge mistake,” Sadler said. “I just went in too low into Turn 1. I was actually trying to give Tony more room and I just got loose under him and spun into him. I know he’s pretty mad at me, but nothing I did intentionally. I’ve never had any problems with him, and don’t want to start it tonight.”
The incident prevented Stewart, winner of Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, from ever running with the leaders and he finished a frustrating 21st.
But Stewart’s angst was nothing compared to what pole-sitter Greg Biffle felt after leading 95 laps, only to end his night early with a broken timing belt. The part failed after he’d already overcome two loose wheels, and the crew errors had Biffle seething after his early exit.
“I give 110 percent as a driver all the time and you just want your equipment to last and be able to win these races,” said Biffle, a highly sought after free agent who has yet to reach a contract extension with Roush Fenway Racing.
“You can deal with a flat tire or something like that, but when it’s self-induced, it makes it even harder. It makes it so hard to swallow.”