Busch defends Bristol victory

By Jeff Birchfield

   BRISTOL -- One week after losing by three inches at Darlington, Kurt Busch held off challenges from teammate Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte in the closing laps to score his second straight win in the Food City 500 Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
   "It's the first time I've got to be the defending champion of anything," said Busch, 24, who came back from an early spin to take his fifth career Winston Cup victory. "The 17 (Kenseth) seemed to be the best on the charts. We thought he was going to be the car to beat today and he ended up second place.
   "Our car was good enough to maintain lap times and we were good enough to be in a position to win. There's times when you have to race people and there's times you need to ride and survive and not cause wrecks to win at Bristol."
   Busch's most serious challenge came from third place finisher Labonte, who he passed for the lead on lap 404. Labonte's Chevrolet closed to the back bumper of Busch's Ford at the end of the race's final long green flag run, but could not overtake the No. 97.
   "We hit some lapped traffic and we were both being careful," said Labonte, the winner at Atlanta earlier this year. "I thought his car was going up the race track more than it was the first few laps of the run. At that point, I thought my car was getting a little better and his was giving up a little bit."
   Kenseth with ten lap fresher tires got around Labonte on a lap 481 restart, but suffered damage in doing so. He was unable to close the gap between he and leader Busch over the final laps with Busch winning by six car lengths.
   Still, he and Busch were able to provide the first 1-2 finish for car owner Jack Roush at BMS since August 1998, when teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Burton took the top two spots.
   "Me and Bobby had to go there at the end, and I got my fender knocked in a little," said Kenseth, who came from a 37th starting position to post the runner-up finish. "But, it was a good race. It's always physical out there and we didn't have a scratch on the car until there at the end, so it was pretty good."
   Veteran Ricky Rudd, still winless in 50 starts at BMS, came home fourth and rookie Greg Biffle rounded out the top five. All of the top finishers except Labonte were in Fords, powered by Roush engines.
   "I was worried about running 500 laps at Bristol, but I feel great," commented Biffle. "We got the nose knocked in, but that's what happens when you race at Bristol. I'm pretty excited to get the Grainger Ford up there."
   Sterling Marlin was the final car on the lead lap in a Dodge, while the winner of Saturday's Busch race Kevin Harvick was one lap down in a Chevy. Biffle and Marlin took on new tires with only 30 laps to go, but were unable to close on the leaders.
   Contact was the order of the day with seventeen caution periods. By lap 3, the yellow flag was already out when Kyle Petty spun in turn two. Only ten circuits later, it was out again when Michael Waltrip and Dave Blaney tangled on the frontstretch in a wreck that eliminated former BMS winner Dale Jarrett.
   Another former Bristol winner Terry Labonte was upset with the role of lapped car Brett Bodine in lap 244 caution, which knocked then third-place Labonte out of the race.
   "Anytime you're in a race with a Bodine you're liable to get in a wreck," said Labonte, who finished 39th. "I don't think for people that watch races or that are involved, that you need to say any more."
   Petty was the victim of the day's most serious accident when Ward Burton's car slammed the inside wall and slid back across the track, clipping Petty's car. The No. 45 of Petty slammed driver's side into the turn one wall. Petty went to Bristol Regional Medical Center, where he underwent CAT scans, but was later released.
   Other notable long days included those for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 16th, polesitter Ryan Newman, who came home 22nd and Mark Martin, who ended the day 29th.
   The rough racing also took its toll on defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. After being involved in four separate incidents, Stewart limped home to a 26th place finish.
   Several other big names left the .533-mile short track short of victory. Jeff Gordon, a four-time winner of this race, came home ninth after a lap 391 caution put he and other early race leaders -- Harvick, Rusty Wallace and Jimmy Spencer laps down to Busch and company.
   According to Busch, the timing of the caution, which left only five cars on the lead lap, and a decision from the cockpit was key to winning the race.
   "I was supposed to pit two laps before," revealed Busch. "I took it upon myself to stay out on the race track. My spotter told me that there was debris out on the race track. That whole green flag session was a big turning point. We came from 18th to the lead and it put some cars out front and put some others down. It eliminated some of the fast cars. We were lucky that yellow came out when it did."
   Kenseth also lost a lap in the fray, but was able to get back on the lead lap and ultimately challenge for the victory. Kenseth retained his lead in the Winston Cup standings, where he now holds a 138-point advantage over Busch and a lead of 147 points over Stewart.
   "It's too early in the season to worry about points, but it sure is nice to be running this good," said Kenseth. "This sport could turn around on you in a heartbeat. So, we're just enjoying it and working as hard as we can to keep it up."
   For Busch, the satisfaction of defending his Food City 500 title and winning after finishing second on three occasions earlier this year is enough for now.
   "It's a great feeling," said Busch. "We've been so close so many times. I knew eventually we would be able to keep things together and win one."