MILLER LITE DRIVER KURT BUSCH READY FOR BRISTOL HOMECOMING "Rusty" Returning To Action In This Weekend's Sharpie 500 On Bristol High Banks BRISTOL, Tenn. (Aug. 22, 2006) -- Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch recorded his first win behind the...
MILLER LITE DRIVER KURT BUSCH READY FOR BRISTOL HOMECOMING
"Rusty" Returning To Action In This Weekend's Sharpie 500 On Bristol High Banks
BRISTOL, Tenn. (Aug. 22, 2006) -- Miller Lite Dodge driver Kurt Busch recorded his first win behind the wheel of his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge in only his fifth start for Penske Racing back in the March Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. He's returning to NASCAR's most popular track hoping to win Saturday night's Sharpie 500 and make it a Bristol sweep for 2006.
Busch arrived at Bristol the last time around with big shoes to fill. After all, the man he replaced behind the wheel of the "Blue Deuce," Rusty Wallace, had won nine times on the high-banked .533-mile oval. Wallace had long declared Bristol as his favorite track. Fans and competitors alike acknowledged "R.W." as the man to beat every time the top NASCAR racing circuit visited the Northeast Tennessee speed plant.
Busch was quick to admit that following Wallace's footsteps was a big undertaking, but he was determined to prove he was worthy of his new ride and eager to show that he could continue the winning ways that had made Wallace the "King" of Bristol.
After all, Busch, the 2004 NASCAR champ, certainly shared a lot in common with Wallace, the 1989 points titlist and 55-race winner who hung up his Cup racing helmet at the end of the 2005 season. Busch, like Wallace, had recorded the first Cup win of his career at Bristol. Wallace had honed his racing skills on the small "bullring" short tracks, behind the wheel of a full-bodied late model stock car. Busch came from the same background. Wallace and Busch both had claimed a championship during their fourth season as a full-time Cup competitor.
But perhaps the biggest common denominator between the two great racers is their professed love for the Bristol track.
"It's my favorite track of them all, there's no doubt about that," Busch said. "I'm asked that question several times a week, especially when we're doing autograph signings and sponsor appearances. I know how much Rusty loved Bristol. I can identify with that. There's no other place like it. There's a level of electricity in the air, particularly in the night race there, which is second to none. It's like a homecoming every time we go there."
Inasmuch as Busch is quick to nod to his affection for the Bristol track, the relationship certainly must be considered mutual.
Brandishing a career record of five wins and eight top-10 finishes in only 11 races, Busch carries statistics worthy of being considered the next "Bristol King." With Wallace now retired, only Jeff Gordon, also with five victories, has displayed equal Bristol prowess among active drivers. However, Gordon has won only once since 1998.
"I guess I just got lucky a couple of times out there," Busch said, perhaps too humbly about his impressive Bristol record. "Regardless of how the wins came about, I really do love the place and we can't wait to get back there this weekend."
Busch's soft spot for the Bristol track certainly had to undertake a learning curve before coming to fruition.
"Oh, there was a learning curve -- a learning curve indeed," Busch recently recalled with a chuckle "All you have to do is go back and look at my first Cup race at Bristol back in 2001."
The official race report for the March 25, 2001, edition of the Food City 500 shows that Busch started 39th and finished 42nd. He completed only 118 of the 500 laps and exited the race due to an accident.
"It wasn't pretty," Busch said, now laughing. "As a matter of fact, it was downright ugly. The first time I crashed that day, it was on my on. The second time I wrecked, I was in a big pileup. I guess you could say that the third time was the charm, in that we punctured the radiator in that crash.
"That put us out for good," Busch continued, still chuckling. "They just kept on fixing it and putting me back out there to get track time. When we were finally done for the day, I looked up on the board and there were still about 400 laps of racing left. They didn't have the tunnel down in the third turn at the time, so I was forced to sit there and watch all the others go at it for another three hours.
"I promised myself that day a situation like that would never happen again. It became a necessity in my mind to become a good racer at Bristol. You also have to consider the fact that they announced that very weekend that my car sponsor (Sharpie) was going to also start sponsoring the August race there.
"Seriously, I think that good racing luck has had a little to do with it, too," offered Busch, who went on to claim his first career win the following spring at Bristol and then posted three consecutive Bristol wins in 2003-2004. "I was able to develop a real positive attitude about racing at Bristol and I enter the Bristol race week really looking forward to racing there.
"I looked at guys like Darrell and Rusty and saw just how much they genuinely enjoyed each and every time the circuit raced at Bristol," said Busch. "Having a positive attitude about racing there is so important at Bristol and we always have that going for us when we get there.
"As far as the strategy behind my success, I learned from the very first race that you have to be around at the finish to do well at Bristol. It really is a situation of surviving the first 400 laps -- keeping the fenders on the thing and staying out of the wall. Then, if you're in good shape after four-fifths of the race, it's time to really get down to business during the final 100 laps."
Busch's win in the spring race certainly didn't come easy. Busch and his Roy McCauley-led Miller Lite Dodge team had plenty of obstacles to overcome.
Here is a race "recap" of the March 28 Food City 500:
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"It was a monumental win, to say the least," Busch said of his 15th career Cup win and fifth at Bristol. "Yes, it was the first win for us in the Miller Lite Dodge -- my first win for Penske Racing. But, the way we won it will always stand out in my mind. It's unbelievable when you think of overcoming those obstacles at Bristol to take that first win.
"We started off the race where I wasn't able to communicate with the team," explained Busch. "I could hear them, but they couldn't hear anything I said. That didn't get our team down like it could have most teams at a place like Bristol.
"We went through a quick little practice run and devised a signal system where if I touched the A pillar the car was a little tight. If I touched the door it was a little loose. We ran with that all the way up to the red flag. Then during the red flag, that's when I was able to get the second radio out and talk into it on the mike, and that was the only way they could hear me. We had a rough day with that.
"If that wasn't bad enough, we got a flat tire early in the day," Busch said of the flat right rear tire he encountered on Lap 61 after taking the lead from Greg Biffle, who had experienced a similar setback. "That put us one lap down. We came down pit road under the green and Roy (McCauley, crew chief) saw that the lefts were okay. He made the call to go with rights only and that saved us from going two laps down. We were able to race our way back and get the Lucky Dog and work our way through the pack, sometimes on the high side, sometimes on the low side."
It was only 11 laps after Busch's tire problems that the second yellow flag of the race flew, this caution for a multi-car crash in Turn 1. Busch was all the way back in the 38th spot, running one lap down to leader Tony Stewart, for the Lap 78 restart.
Busch was patient in getting around the other lapped cars and into the "Lucky Dog" spot during the next 10 laps, getting great help from spotter Jeremy Brickhouse and coaching from Roger Penske's "Lieutenant" Walt Czarnecki.
When another multi-car crash occurred in Turn 4 brought out the third caution period of the race, Busch got the free pass to rejoin the lead lap racers.
Busch, McCauley and crew continuously massage their Dodge into top competitive form -- using their hand signal system and without the driver being able to communicate via a working two-way radio. It was a true spectacle in itself to witness.
Busch was back up to 18th when Jeff Burton's spin on Lap 159 brought out eh sixth caution period of the race and he'd cracked the top 15 when another massive pileup forced red flag conditions on Lap 193.
Under the red, Busch was able to pull the backup radio from its harness and communicate directly through its face speaker. The team then pinpointed the radio problem being in Busch's helmet microphone. Busch and crew were able to remedy the situation to where they had limited, yet workable, two-way radio communication for the remainder of the race.
With several cars pitting prior to the Lap 200 restart, Busch was all the way back up to 10th when the green flag flew once again. Busch made steady progress through the field after that. He was ninth after a caution on Lap 206 for debris and eighth on a Lap 223 restart after another yellow flag caused by debris on the track.
When rookie Brent Sherman spun on the backstretch on Lap 249 to bring out the ninth yellow of the race, all the leaders hit pit road. A 12.824-second pit stop had Busch and the Miller Lite Dodge back up to third.
Busch was up to second, behind leader Stewart, on the Lap 294 restart after the 11th caution period of the day. He scooted around Stewart to reclaim the lead on Lap 386 and held the point until the 13th yellow of the day flew on Lap 407 when Kevin Lepage stalled against the Turn 4 wall.
Even thought McCauley's lightning-fast Miller Lite Dodge team gave Busch a 12.692-second stop, Matt Kenseth's crew got him out first. Busch was second, a hard-charging Kevin Harvick was third, Jeff Gordon fourth and Stewart fifth.
Through three additional cautions, Busch threatened to reclaim the lead from ex-teammate Kenseth. He finally got his opportunity to pass Kenseth with only four laps remaining in the race.
"The last restart, Matt got a great restart," Busch explained of the final portion of the 500-lap battle. "It looked like I was sleeping. I chased him down lap after lap. We wore our tires out. We were out there for about a hundred laps. We wore our tires out with running too hard of a pace. When he got the lapped cars they wouldn't yield to him, yet he couldn't pass them because he wore out his tires. I was in the same boat.
"When I caught up to him he was real tight in the center of one and two," Busch said of the closing laps of the race. "He got loose. I bumped into him a little bit and that was our window to go for the lead. It was a big victory for us. The Bristol atmosphere is all about bumping and grinding. I've seen Jeff Gordon win many races that way, and take a few races away from Rusty for that matter.
Busch had a special cell phone call while celebrating his big win in Victory Lane -- from Rusty Wallace -- former driver of the Miller Lite Dodge and a true legend in this sport. He couldn't wait to tell his friend and driving champion-now-turned-broadcaster what he had done to pay tribute.
"To have Rusty call me in Victory Lane, it's very emotional to drive his car and to drive for Roger Penske and Miller Lite and Dodge and all of our great sponsors," an emotional Busch explained. "For him to congratulate me, and that one was for the team. That's what he had said. When I mentioned for him it's a tradition and he said 'of course.' And I said, 'I'm going to name this car Rusty.' You could almost see he had a tear in his eye."
Busch's victory came at an official 0.179-second advantage over runner-up Harvick. Kenseth finished third, with Carl Edwards fourth and Bobby Labonte fifth. Mark Martin, Biffle, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top 10 finishers.
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The car that Busch raced and won with in the spring Bristol race was the PRS-090. Wallace debuted the car in the 2005 Food City 500, starting third and dominating the race (leading four times for 157 -- the most -- laps) before a flat right front tire relegated him to a 13th-place finish. Wallace drove the car one additional time, in the August Bristol race last year. He started 20th and drove to the front, but had to come back from a costly speeding penalty to lead laps and post a fifth-place finish.
The spring Bristol battle is the only race Busch has used the car. After winning and naming the car "Rusty," Busch and crew stored the victorious Miller Lite Dodge away, anticipating this weekend's return to Bristol.
Thus, one could say that "Rusty" is returning to action in this weekend's Sharpie 500 on the high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.