BRISTOL, Tenn. - Second-year driver Kurt Busch had never won a Winston Cup stock car race before, so when he beat veteran Jimmy Spencer to the finish line yesterday in the Food City 500, he treated it like a short-track victory on a Saturday night.
Busch stopped his Rubbermaid Ford at the start-finish line, climbed out on to the window frame and bowed to the crowd of 160,000 that encircled Bristol Motor Speedway's half-mile racetrack. Then, he surprised everyone by jumping off the car, running toward the flag stand and waving to the flagman to throw him the checkered flag.
"Bristol is a lot like the quarter-mile dirt tracks I started on," said Busch, who with checkered flag in hand jumped back in his car and took his victory lap. "I had a vision of what I did back then. And this was a chance to connect with the fans. You don't necessarily feel you've done anything for them by racing in circles. This allowed me to show the special feeling I had inside and let them know I'm part of them and they're part of me."
Spencer, who fought off third-place finisher Ricky Rudd and finished 1.556 seconds behind, seemed to think Busch drove like he was on a dirt track.
The burly veteran had taken the lead from Busch with a surprisingly easy pass on Lap 443, but found himself in a decidedly physical tussle to keep it one lap later. After the race, Spencer was decidedly aggravated when he stepped from his Target Dodge.
"I can handle getting beat fair and square, I'm a big guy," Spencer said. "But I can't handle getting smashed into and knocked up and out of the racetrack. You just don't race that way for victories."
Busch, a precocious 23, didn't flinch. He acknowledged Spencer probably did see the situation totally differently. He noted that Spencer hadn't won a Winston Cup race since 1994 and was no doubt as eager to win as he.
But, Busch also pointed to last season and the November race in Phoenix where Spencer was running a lap down and Busch was in eighth place and attempting to save his season and finish in the Top 25 in points.
"I know he thinks he got a raw deal," Busch said. "But at Phoenix he dumped me flat-out. He's the one who always says he never forgets. Well, neither do I. I let him pass me real easy and set the stage today.
"I know fans don't expect the leader to let the second-place guy go to the lead easy like that, and I can't believe he didn't expect a race to develop after that. I wasn't going to lay back like a puppy. So, when he went low into Turn 1 - we've all seen Dale Earnhardt slide back under people after being passed here - so I went low and gave him a little tap to let him know I was there, and he slid up the hill and I got back by him."
It was pure Bristol short-track racing. By the end of the day, Tony Stewart, still hurting from a crash last week, needed driver Todd Bodine to step in in relief on Lap 367, Kevin Harvick was apologizing for hitting John Andretti's car and Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were playing, "I'll get you for that!"
Sterling Marlin, who lost any hope of victory when he cut a tire, finished 19th but still leads the Winston Cup points standings, while Busch moved up from 11th to fifth in the points race.
Though Jack Roush's mother, Georgetta, is listed as the owner of Busch's car, the team is one of four in the Jack Roush stable. After yesterday's race, all of them were in the Top 10, a complete turnaround from last season. Matt Kenseth, sponsored by Towson-based DeWalt Power Tools, is second in points after finishing sixth; Busch is fifth in points; Mark Martin is eighth; and Jeff Burton ninth.
Busch, a Las Vegas native, is the fifth different Winston Cup winner in six races this season and the youngest driver to win a race since Jeff Gordon won the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at age 22.
Yesterday, Gordon started on the pole and wound up 31st after driving into the second turn too hard on Lap 158, causing his own spin and crash into the outside wall. But he didn't go before suckering Robby Gordon, his sometimes rival, into a mistake.
Jeff faked his start to the initial green flag, causing Robby to jump the start and draw a penalty that put him at the back of the field. Robby worked diligently to climb back to 18th when Earnhardt came up behind him. Earnhardt, who would eventually lead the most laps (181), was headed toward the lead.
Robby refused to "let" Earnhardt have an easy pass and on Lap 150, Earnhardt, tired of waiting, ran him into the wall to get by. After the race, still not over his irritation, Earnhardt slammed into the side of Gordon's car. Gordon responded by ramming the back of Earnhardt's car on pit road as they headed for the garage area.
"I'm racing to get up with the leaders and he's riding around holding people up," said Earnhardt, who finished fourth. "That's why it took him three or four tries to get in the Winston Cup Series. He doesn't know how to race."
For his part, Gordon said he was at a loss to understand Earnhardt's angst.