Fearless Busch Shows Poise

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - As a rookie in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last year, Kurt Busch wasn’t hesitant to show the competition he wasn’t afraid to race in the front of the pack.

On Sunday, Busch displayed that same no-fear characteristic in the Talladega 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race ever at the famed 2.66-mile tri-oval.

Rookies, especially ones that have never experienced the tight, close packs of 35-to-40 cars restrictor-plate racing at Talladega brings, just aren’t supposed to race as aggressively as the driver of Roush Racing’s No. 97 Sharpie/Rubbermaid Taurus did in the Talladega 500. They just aren’t supposed to finish third in their first race at Talladega, as Busch did.

Busch’s finish was the best by any of the four Roush Racing drivers to date. He also recorded a fourth-place run at Texas and has three top-10 finishes in his rookie campaign. Sunday’s third-place finish vaulted Busch seven places in the Winston Cup points standings to 24th, only three places behind Martin and two places ahead of Burton.

“This is what it’s all about,” said Busch, who earned his best career Winston Cup finish Sunday. “It felt great out there today. The 188 laps seemed to fly by. We were really happy with our car all weekend, and the crew worked extremely well together.

“Once again, my crew chief, Ben Leslie, did an incredible job. Jack (Roush) put us in a package, and we got great results. It also felt great to have a safe race like this.”

Busch started Sunday’s 500-miler from the 27th position, but by Lap 70, he had moved into the Top 10 for first the first time. On laps 78 and 80, he went to the lead for the first time in a race during his brief Winston Cup career, and after that, stayed steady in the Top 10 until he was able to move his Ford into position to pull off what would have been an upset victory.

By Lap 162, Busch moved into second place and held that position behind Tony Stewart until Bobby Hamilton got by both of them in the waning moments.

Team owner Jack Roush, who hasn’t had a lot to crow about so far in 2001, was extremely pleased with his troops on Sunday. Busch’s teammates -- Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth -- finished fourth, 10th and 19th, respectively.

“It was a great day for all of us,” Roush said. “We’ve been prepared for this all season, and it’s great for us to have our first third-place finish together. Busch is extremely mature for his age (22), and he and the team worked hard and ran smart. They did exactly what they needed to do to get his finish.”

Busch’s performance Sunday also drew rave reviews from Tony Stewart, who finished second in his No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac. Stewart lost the lead on the final lap to Hamilton, who took the checkered flag for the first time with Andy Petree Racing.

“There were a couple times when he (Busch) got a big run (at the end),” Stewart said. “I can promise you one thing -- he had more patience than I would have had in that situation. I probably would have gotten a little anxious and tried to move too soon. He did a great job.

“He (Busch) was the reason that we were able to stay up there. He kept giving us big pushes down the backstretch and in the short chutes, when it was appropriate, and made sure that he got off the bumper by the time we got to the corner so we didn't wreck. For a rookie, he drove like a veteran that has been here for a long time. I thought he did a great

Busch earned a hard-nosed reputation in his first and only year in the trucks in 2000, when he won four races and finished second in the points to teammate Greg Biffle. He also, however, earned the respect of his fellow competitors, and he’s apparently gaining more of that with every race in the Winston Cup Series this year.

Stewart said he wasn’t afraid to hook up with the rookie at the end of Sunday’s 188-lap event, a comment that gives Busch a great deal of confidence.

“Everybody's got their own plan at the end of the race and I think the yellow-backed bumpers (of rookies) come off -- maybe,” Busch said. “There were two Pontiacs (Stewart and Johnny Benson) surrounding me and I had a plan to try to work around it, but running second I didn't want it to end that way, and those two guys came up on us on the
outside. They were trying to do the same thing I was doing and we just put a good effort forth with this Ford and just have a great relationship with Sharpie/Rubbermaid already.”

That relationship could get even stronger this weekend as the Winston Cup Series heads to California Speedway. All Busch did on his last trip there was win the NCTS season finale last November.

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