Busch breaks into winner's circle, defends Bristol victory

Published 7:20 am Monday, March 24, 2003

By By JENNA FRYER AP Sports Writer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.