Monday, March 24, 2003

Busch rolls the dice and wins

Decides not to pit, and reaps reward

The Associated Press

BRISTOL, Tenn. - 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.

"I don't know what it is about me, I don't know what it is about Bristol," Busch said. "I love this place."

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.

"(Busch) gets up on the wheel and drives the hell out of that race car, and he made a call today that won him the race," crew chief Jimmy Fenning said.

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.

"You watch all these wrecks and the cars as they go by and you keep praying you are on the right side when the smoke clears," Busch said.

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.

Kenseth's finish allowed him to retain his lead in the standings. He leads Busch by 138 points.

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