Kurt Busch remembers Darlington race he almost won

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Phoenix Racing

KURT BUSCH
Memories of a Mother of a Race at the Mother of All Tracks

Kurt Busch, Phoenix Racing Chevrolet
Kurt Busch, Phoenix Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (May 8, 2012) – When most people think of Mother’s Day, they think about delectable brunches, beautiful bouquets and day-long homages to Mom. Those are the images that will be on the minds of many who call the NASCAR garage their office this coming race weekend. But the lovely touches that will grace homes across the country Sunday are a far cry from the tough and gritty “office” at which the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will compete.

Darlington (S.C.) Raceway is often referred to as the track that is “Too Tough To Tame” or the “Lady in Black.” It’s also the oldest track on the NASCAR circuit and, to coincide with its feminine theme, Darlington could be considered the “Mother of All Racetracks.” Appropriately enough, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 Sprint Cup race weekend at Darlington takes place during Mother’s Day weekend.

Driver Kurt Busch enters the Southern 500 on Saturday night having made 15 career starts at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval at Darlington. He’s started from the pole twice and has scored two top-five finishes and five top-10s. He’s led a number of laps at the track and, remarkably, has been running at the end of each of his 15 starts, boasting a lap-completion rate of 97.3 percent. While he owns some notable stats at the track that’s “Too Tough to Tame,” Busch still yearns for the most important stat – a checkmark in the win column. That missing checkmark brings to mind the race Busch came within thousandths of a second of winning. Earlier this season, Busch referenced this particular race as one of his greatest during an interview with NASCAR Illustrated.

It was March 16, 2003, and Busch was making just his fifth Sprint Cup start at Darlington. Busch had qualified sixth but had to start from the back after the team changed an engine before the race. Busch showed patient, steady pace as he progressed through the field during the race. His first opportunity to take the lead didn’t come until the last round of pit stops. Sitting in third place, he watched drivers Elliott Sadler and Jeff Gordon battle for the lead, all the while closing in on the leaders.

“They were racing each other so hard going into turn two that it slowed them up, and they lost all of their momentum,” Busch said of the battle for the lead. “I didn’t even hesitate. I kept my foot in the throttle, went for the lead and got it going into turn three.”

Busch officially took the lead on lap 270 with only 24 laps remaining. A fast car allowed him to build a lead of three seconds. He was poised to run to the finish as the leader until a hard-charging Ricky Craven started tracking down Busch as the laps wound down. Complicating the situation for Busch was the loss of power steering on his car. As the race counted down to two laps to go, Busch and Craven started battling hard for the lead with the top spot being exchanged all the way to the white flag signaling the final lap.

“We were taking the white flag, and he realized I was really slow in three and four and decided not to pass me until we were going through three and four coming to the checkered flag,” Busch said. “I had two options, and that was either hold the car as low as I can to block him or ride the high line to try to keep my momentum up off the top. I didn’t make a quick enough decision, so I ended up driving the middle lane because I just couldn’t hold my car low with the power steering gone.

“I stayed in the gas off four and again, without the power steering, I was late to pull the car straight, which is when I slammed against him, which probably looked like I was trying to hold him back. It put us in a deadlock all the way to the finish line. I thought I was ahead of him, but as we were grinding, scrubbing speed and just blistering the sides off each other’s cars, there was a moment when his car shifted ahead of mine.”

To this day, the finish shares the top spot on NASCAR’s list of closest finishes in the sport’s history. Although Busch settled for second place, he doesn’t hesitate to refer to it as one of his greatest races. It’s a racing memory for the ages at a track that, appropriately enough, has been on the NASCAR circuit longer than any other.

KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing:

What are your thoughts about racing at Darlington this weekend?

“It’s the same old Darlington. You don’t race the competition, you race the racetrack. With the mental focus there and the physical drain that it puts on the body, it just adds up to Darlington being one of the toughest tracks there is on the circuit.”

Talk about the emotions after the race after coming so close to victory in 2003?

“Yeah, I think a lot of people thought I was going to be very upset to come up that close at the end. When I got done with all of my media requests, I went to victory lane. I think Ricky (Craven) actually stood on his heels for a second because he thought I was going in there to be physical with him or something, but I put my arms around him, gave him a big hug and said, ‘Buddy, that’s what racing is all about.’ It was disappointing, but it’s hard to be mad after having that kind of a close battle and finish.”

What’s the toughest part about Darlington?

“Just getting your car to handle at both ends of the track. The turns in every track vary to some degree but not quite like they do at a place like Darlington. Turns one and two are significantly different than three and four. Whatever works in one and two most times won’t work in three and four, so it’s about finding a comfortable balance for 500 miles, which is the other difficult part. This is a physically demanding track, and 500 miles at Darlington is a long race. I know we have the 600 at Charlotte, but 500 miles at Darlington can feel a lot longer, especially if your car isn’t handling the way you need.”

This is a double-duty weekend for you, so how much do you prepare for a weekend like this?

“When we go into any of these weekends where we’re running both Sprint Cup and Nationwide, you know you have your work cut out for you. But going to a place like Darlington, it can become a bit more of a challenge because of the mental focus needed and the physical nature of the racetrack. It’s all about doing the work beforehand, though. I’ll be doubling my fluids maybe a little earlier than normal this week and just trying to get myself prepared before I ever hit track property on Friday.”

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags busch, chevrolet, phoenix racing