Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene
The overriding question at Darlington Raceway on a warm Saturday night was not how many cars would have ugly meetings with the outside wall but how many would not.
That number was very close to zero. Winner Kyle Busch, who had the evening’s strongest car (and the evening’s strongest will to win), saw the wall in an up-close-and-personal way on a number of occasions, as did some of the other leading stock car drivers in the world. They have come to expect such at old Darlington, which was gussied up for the Dodge Challenger 500 – with new asphalt and a reformed surface over the new tunnel between Turns 3 and 4 – but was still the irrational beast designer Harold Brasington had in mind more than a half-century ago.
New asphalt equals faster speeds, and lap times were seconds faster than normal – if there is a “normal” here – on the Sprint Cup Series’ latest visit to NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway. Speeds entering the corners rattled 200 miles per hour and made sane racing generally not enough. The softer walls – particularly in Turns 3 and 4 – were tested repeatedly (and found satisfactory) as drivers looked for the edge and occasionally went over it. Very few cars returned to the garage area after the race without obvious damage, especially on the passenger sides.
Busch, racing under the pronounced shadow of the previous week’s late-race crash with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond (and after absorbing a forest of negatively configured single-finger salutes as he circled the track in a pickup truck during pre-race driver introductions) drove like a man who just escaped from prison. With a posse on his back. And a gun to his head. And a lethal injection waiting.
“I can’t tell you how many times he tried to give this race away by slamming the wall,” third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said of Busch. “His right side was destroyed.”
Busch estimated that he pounded the wall five or six times. At least two were hard hits. One came as he raced Greg Biffle for the lead 39 laps into the race; the other occurred with 79 laps left as Busch got into Turn 2 too fast and bounced off the outside wall. He had brake problems early in the race and at one point described his car as “the most pathetic” he’d ever driven.
“I got real loose and hit the wall because we overadjusted, but you have to be that way on these tires,” Busch said. “You have to be out of control, and I was pretty much out of control, trying to hold onto the thing. After we ran about 15 or 20 laps, and the rest of the guys fell off so much, we could just keep ticking along and keep going.”
The aggressive driving wasn’t Busch’s main problem. He had to return to the pits 139 laps into the race because of a lug-nut issue, dropping him from the lead to 29th, particularly deep in the pack on a tough-to-pass track like Darlington. In the end, though, that problem became a minor irritant, barely a delay on Busch’s timeline. Sailing through Darlington’s sweeping turns with seemingly little regard for the difficult task of staying off the walls at increased speeds, Busch returned to the lead at lap 270. He led the race’s final 64 laps without a serious challenge.
“I just kind of laid back, stayed cool, tried to maneuver my way through traffic and do the best that I could,” Busch said. “You know, fortunately, I was able to get through about half the guys. Then, coming down pit road, my guys had another awesome stop in order to get me a few more. Then, on that last stop, they got me out first. Even though we had a fumble today, I still owe those guys a steak dinner.”
Busch beat second-place Carl Edwards to the finish by 3.11 seconds. Following the third-place Gordon were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and David Ragan.
“To come out of here with a second-place finish... I mean, Kyle had the fastest car,” Edwards said. “He was pretty unbeatable tonight.”
Busch, now comfortably atop the run for Chase spots, showed no signs of planning to slow down.
“We just need to keep that bull’s-eye on us,” he said. “Guys are looking at us and worrying about us. We’re the target that they’re shooting for.”
The victory continued what has been a spectacular run of success for Busch, who, at 23, became the youngest Cup winner in Darlington’s history. He leads the series points, has three wins and, for good measure, has tossed in victories in Nationwide and Craftsman Truck racing to total eight for the year in NASCAR’s top three series. The Darlington win isn’t likely to change his status as the black-hat wearer of the moment in NASCAR, but it solidified his position as the season’s top driver and as one who could become one of the best ever.
Busch seems to be feeding off the irritation of the fans who continue to boo his successes and applaud his shortcomings. After celebrating the Darlington victory with a long burnout and a bow to the crowd, he mentioned that his team “loves to hear that noise; keep it up” before joining the victory-lane hoopla. And he showed no signs of backing away from the in-your-face attitude he has taken toward those who see him as the dark angel.
“I don’t care,” Busch said of the negative reactions. “I’m here to race. I’m here to win. If I win, it just makes them more upset and crying on the way home.” He said someone tossed a beer can at him after the race. “Next time just make sure it’s full so I can enjoy it,” he said.
Gordon, who also has been a boobird target during much of his career (although not to the extent of Busch’s current situation), said he’s certain Busch would rather not play the role of villain.
“I don’t think he wants to be that,” Gordon said. “I know Kyle’s a good guy. And he’s an incredibly talented racecar driver. There’s no doubt about that.
“He just gets himself into situations that just follow him. He just needs to accept it, go with it, but, you know, be himself. And I think there’s an opportunity here for him. Not that he wants to go crashing Dale Jr. very often. I don’t think that’s going to do him too many favors. But having a love-hate relationship out there with the fans is not a bad thing. I heard more noise for him tonight than I’ve ever heard for him. And all I can remember when I came into this sport is riding around with Dale Earnhardt [Sr.] and him getting a lot of boos and cheers, and all he cared about was about how much noise they made.”
That wasn’t the first time Busch was compared to Earnhardt Sr. over the long Darlington weekend. As the Richmond incident with Earnhardt Jr. was picked apart over and over by fans and news media, Busch’s driving style continued to spark comment across a wide spectrum of interest.
At Darlington, he raced closely with Biffle before the Roush Fenway Racing driver, who led 95 laps, fell out of the race with engine problems, finishing last. After Busch recovered from the pit-road problem and regained the lead, he had no challengers.
His rush to victory was delayed by only eight cautions for 31 laps, making the race the fastest 500-miler in the track’s long history.