FONTANA, Calif. - Kurt Busch put himself in position to win Saturday's season-ending NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Motorola 200 at California Speedway. His Exide Batteries Ford crew sealed the deal. Busch, getting a seven-race jumpstart on next year's Roush Racing NASCAR Winston Cup Series program while completing his one-year -cup of coffee- in a Ford F-150 truck, showed the savvy of a veteran. Despite winning his fourth Bud Pole of the campaign, the 22-year-old Nevadan went conservative after leading the 200-mile race's first lap to hang around the front of the field waiting for the final laps to play out. He sat third behind Bryan Reffner and Andy Houston when Chuck Hossford's engine let go with 20 laps remaining, bringing out the event's third and final caution. The field headed for pit road where Reffner's chance to win two in a row evaporated while speedy service by Busch's Matt Chambers-headed gang put its driver in the lead. Busch led the rest of the way, building the advantage to nearly two seconds before an untimely slide in Turn 2 of the final lap enabled Houston to close to six truck lengths - 0.775 seconds. Busch, however, righted the ship to claim his fourth win of 2000 and third from the pole. He won $51,435 plus a $10,000 pole/win bonus from series sponsor Craftsman. The winning average speed, 144.26 mph, was fastest in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series history. The previous mark, 141.844, was established at the two-mile superspeedway when Jack Sprague won the 1998 edition of the $554,037 event. The victory also cemented Busch's No. 2 finishing position, behind Roush teammate Greg Biffle, in the 2000 championship chase. Biffle, who led a record-setting 19th time during the season, wound up with a 230-point title edge - two points fewer than the margin by which Sprague decisioned Rich Bickle in 1997. It marked the first time that one owner has captured the top two spots in the NCTS standings. -I'm so excited to get this win for the team,- said Busch who erased most of Biffle's rookie records during a season in which he won more than $600,000 and posted 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. -The guys were all depending on me to get the $10,000 bonus from Craftsman to help out with their Christmas shopping so the should be happy about that. -I really wanted to win this last race and go out with a bang.- Houston, who'll also be a NASCAR Winston Cup Series rookie in 2001, finished where his CAT Rental Store Chevrolet started in the 36-team lineup. Joe Ruttman, runnerup in the DANA Corporation Dodge a year ago, fell to third under Houston's lap 92 pressure. Sprague's GMAC Financial Service Chevy came from 11th to take fourth-place while Biffle settled for fifth in an up-and-down afternoon of racing. Reffner retained the sixth-place he occupied after his disappointing pit stop. Terry Cook booted K Automotive's Dodge to the No. 7 slot, followed by Marty Houston, Featherlite Southwest Series point leader Matt Crafton and Jimmy Hensley. Only 10 drivers completed all 100 laps after an untimely second caution, when David Starr's Case Construction Equipment Dodge dropped fluid in Turn 4 on the 42nd circuit, got the better of several teams who'd already taken service under the green flag. Among them were Dennis Setzer (11th at the finish), Rick Crawford (12th), Ken Schrader (17th) and Mike Wallace. The latter was listed in 32nd position after the engine of his Team ASE Racing Ford went south after 60 circuits. The event's first half was largely uneventful at the front as Houston headed laps two through 35, then pitted for a pair of right side tires and handed the spot to Biffle. Marty Houston and Ruttman cycled to the top but the spotlight, at mid-race, was on Reffner's fleet Silverado which had carved its way from a poor qualifying run of 21st. Reffner passed Ruttman on the 52nd lap in Turn 3 and motored off with Ruttman, Houston and Busch in tow. Biffle fell to nearly a lap down after taking left side Goodyears on the 58th circuit but could have been in position to win had the remaining distance run green - which would have forced his rivals to likewise pit for fuel. Hossford's stall dictated otherwise, although Biffle picked up two positions on pit road and added three more by passing Marty Houston, Reffner and Cook during the final racing segment. Earlier, he was nearly caught on pit road by the lap 43 caution and had to make two trips down pit road. -I think that we have probably lost the last three races due to just bad luck in the pits,- he lamented. Biffle, however, was luckier than Reffner whose truck - experiencing a clutch problem - lurched forward during his last pit stop, forcing the crew to reposition the jack. -We had twice the truck we had yesterday (and) that was our race to give away,- said Reffner. Busch, meanwhile, nearly had a glitch of his own. Inexplicably, his Ford slid up the east turn banking on the final lap - possibly finding fluid that also may have claimed B.A. Wilson's Dodge a few seconds later. -I was just fortunate enough to have a decent cushion that allowed me to gather it up and maintain my lead,- he said.
Two driver announcements also were made at California Speedway. Scott Riggs, who finished 16th in a one-off drive for Brevak Racing, was introduced as the 2001 wheelman of Ultra Motorsports' Team ASE Racing Dodge. Ultra owner Jim Smith still has one seat open on the two-truck team for which Mike Wallace finished fourth in NCTS standings this season. Impact Motorsports owner David Hodson said 22-year-old Kevin Conway, a NASCAR Weekly Racing and Legends car graduate, will join his team next season. Randy Tolsma leaves the organization to join Team Rensi after an eighth-place championship finish. Carlos Contreras isn't expected to return to the team for a sophomore season. ¯ NASCAR officials planned to release the 2001 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series schedule of 24 races on Monday. Several dates have been independently announced, including inaugural visits to Darlington Raceway on May 12, Kansas Speedway on July 7 and South Boston (Va.) Speedway on Sept. 28. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is rejoining the tour after a one-season absence on Oct. 14 while California Speedway again will host the season finale on Nov. 3. ESPN/ESPN2 will broadcast the entire schedule, along with MRN Radio. ¯ The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series has proved to be a magnet for drivers attempting to crack the national racing scene. Forty-one of 104 competitors who started at least one event in 2000 never previously had appeared in a NCTS race. A record 27 different drivers won more than $100,000 during the past season, led by champion Greg Biffle and runnerup Kurt Busch who contributed more than $1.25 million to Roush Racing coffers pending this Thursday's awards banquet in Scottsdale, Ariz. ¯ Busch's final rookie-of-the-year winning margin, over Contreras, was a whopping 135 points. The previous widest spread, a year ago, was 25. Turns out that the award was clinched with five races to go following the Aug. 12 Federated Auto Parts 250 at Nashville Speedway USA. ¯ The final race of the season saw just three money positions change hands. Bryan Reffner advanced to ninth, past Steve Grissom. Marty Houston took 12th from Jimmy Hensley and Rob Morgan displaced Randy MacDonald in 18th. ¯ At least 47 records were set or matched during the 2000 season. Qualifying marks were established or broken 14 times while 11 race standards were posted. ¯ Teams technically don't see action again until February's Daytona Speed Weeks, however, most will attend Darlington Raceway's Nov. 15-16 open test. Dates for January's drills at Daytona International Speedway should be announced soon, according to NASCAR officials.