Busch Reflects on Many Darlington Memories

May 5, 2011

DARLINGTON, S.C. (May 3, 2011) -- Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver Kurt Busch is still looking for his first career victory at the historical Darlington Raceway after 14 races, but he certainly is not lacking for memorable experiences. The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion hopes to add to those memories in Saturday night's SHOWTIME Southern 500 on the demanding 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.

Perhaps one could label Busch's experience during his first Southern 500 as the ultimate example of the old idiom that "ignorance is bliss." Such was the case for Busch back in September 2001.

"My first (Southern 500) there, I actually slipped my way into the pole," Busch said of his surprising lap of 168.048 mph (29.263 seconds). I slipped into the pole because it was a 95-degree day, Labor Day weekend back then, and the way that the heat was, I didn't understand that you needed to slow down when it's hot out. I thought that you could still hold it wide open through Turn 2 and I accidentally did and beat Jeff Gordon for the pole. My first time, qualifying, Turn 2 at Darlington was one of the most exhilarating experiences because I was able to hold it wide open through there when you weren't supposed to. It's a sense of being young and dumb and not realizing the exact reality of how fast you can go through a corner. The exhilaration when I jumped on the back straightaway of, ‘wow, I am going so fast. I'm heading into Turn 3 and I just need to slow it down and not overdrive (Turns) 3 and 4.'

"What was funny is that Jeff and I talked (before the race) and he said, ‘here, I let you lead the first lap because we need to get single-file,'" Busch recalled of the moments leading up to the Sept, 2, 1001 race. "Just yield and Jeff said he'd go right on by me. Well, I led the first 67 laps and he didn't expect that. It was just one of those unique weekends, being a rookie and not understanding a lot about the track and just kind of going off of gut instinct."

Busch went on to lead a total of 74 laps in his first Southern 500 and led as late as Lap 129 before a mid-race incident sent him behind the wall for repairs. He returned to finish 39th, completing 316 of the 367 laps. The race was won under caution by Dodge-driving Ward Burton, who started 39th and led only the final eight circuits.

Busch's most historically significant and highly-publicized Darlington race to date was the March 16, 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. In that race, Busch finished as runner-up to Ricky Craven in one of the most incredible finishes in the sport's history.

The margin of victory was a mere 0.002 seconds and holds a tie for the closest finish in the history of electronic scoring and timing along the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. The Busch/Craven finish held sole possession of that distinction until Jimmie Johnson beat runner-up Clint Bowyer by the exact same margin in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway last month.

"The more I tell the story, the more I feel that I might can chop down that two-thousandths of a second and maybe finally wind up winning the thing," Busch chuckled about the wild finish that will forever be a prominent clip on the sport's highlight reel (and can be viewed by following this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xV7hAz-75UA .) "It was one of the most dramatic finishes ever in NASCAR and it will always be a part of history. I was proud to be part of it there that day.

"I can remember it just like it was yesterday," Busch said of the amazing final few yards of his battle with Craven. "I went into turn three trying to give Ricky the impression that I was gonna go high, yet I cut the wheel down low. I was trying to make sure I made it as wide as I could getting in, so he couldn't commit to a line. When you commit to a line quicker, obviously, you can generate speed through the corner. So I went into (Turn) three low and there was no way I could hold it down like I needed to.

"The car pushed up a little bit and I knew he'd go low, so I didn't want to come back across his nose because I would have spun out and finished as the last car on the lead lap," Busch continued. "So I had to just carry the momentum towards the high side and get as much throttle-on time as I could. He started rubbing the left-rear, the door, the A-post, and as soon as he got up to my front tire, it jerked the wheel out of my hand and yanked my car completely into his. That killed my momentum and then we stayed locked from there on. I grabbed as much of the wheel as I could and finally tugged it back to the right to get off of him by the time we got to the start-finish line, but my momentum had been killed after that. It was just a hard-fought battle and one that they'll probably be talking about forever."

But, there are more details to the story that didn't come out at the time.

"The fact was that my power steering went out late in that race and by the time it got down to those last couple of laps, I had no power steering at all," said Busch. "The TV and radio guys were reporting that I'd just abused my stuff so badly that I'd used everything up; I just had burned the tires slap off the thing. It made for such a great story that I never bothered to mention that if I'd still had my power steering and didn't have to manhandle the car like I was, I probably could have held Ricky off. Regardless, it was a historical race and I was so proud and excited to have been part of it. Ricky has always been such a first class guy and I have always had the utmost respect for him."

Busch started 14th and finished a strong third in last year's SHOWTIME Southern 500. "We really fought hard in that race," he recalled. "I hadn't had a solid run like that at Darlington since Craven and I battled it out for that win. It came down to a strategy where I though two tires would be the way to go at the end. We had the right strategy, but we just didn't have enough speed at the end. I think (winner) Denny Hamlin and (runner-up) Jamie McMurray were stronger than us. Darlington is a track that is so much fun to race when you finish good and that was the case there last year."

This weekend's Darlington action gets under way on Friday with practice scheduled from 11:30 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. and from 2:15 p.m. till 3:00 p.m. Friday's 5:10 p.m. single round of qualifying will establish Saturday's 43-car starting field. Saturday's SHOWTIME Southern 500 (367 laps, 501.3 miles) has a 7:30 p.m. EDT starting time and features live coverage by FOX-TV and MRN Radio.