Busch ends tough week with flourish

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
BRISTOL -- Finally, some publicity Kurt Busch likes.
After a week of answering questions about his altercation with Jimmy Spencer last weekend at Michigan, Busch passed Kevin Harvick on lap 380 and led the final 121 circuits to win the 2003 Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"This is by far my biggest win," said Busch about winning his car sponsor's race by .818 seconds over Harvick. "I can't describe all the emotions I'm going through. Trying to put an exclamation point to this weekend, this is something that comes along once in a lifetime.
Busch swept the Bristol races, the first time that has happened since Rusty Wallace did it in 2000, scoring his third Bristol win in the last four races here.
"To come away with a win like this is very satisfying," said the driver of the No. 97 Sharpie Ford about his fourth win of the season and the eighth of his career. "Just the way the whole team stood up for me and carried me, when things got worse and worse, they kept giving me more support.
"The fans have their opinions on what happened. It's challenging to put that all behind you, but that's what I am paid to do. It's what I love to do -- to go out there and race these cars."
His Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth was the other big story, coming in the pits during a late race caution and making a charge from 18th up to fourth over the final 64 laps.
Earlier in the night, a lap 160 caution was caused when he had to slow with a tire going down and backed up traffic. The cars of leading contenders Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte each crashed as a result, while Kenseth's string of incredible luck continued with the pit stops being perfect timing for him.
Later in the race he made contact with Jeff Gordon, sending Gordon in the wall and a 28th-place finish, while only suffering minimal damage on his own car.
"I think we could have caught the leader," said Kenseth, who increased his points lead over ninth-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a seemingly unsurmountable 351 points. "Taking tires was the right thing to do. I hate I wrecked up Jeff Gordon's day. I feel bad about that."
Second-place finisher Harvick, who barely missed winning a Truck Series race earlier in the week, said: "We just couldn't get going on the frontstretch. Our car just fell off a little bit there. It felt like the right front tire was going flat. The No. 97 was hooked up all night."
Asked why Busch was booed so vehemently by the majority of fans after winning, Harvick said: "He's a cocky, arrogant punk with a bad attitude. He can wheel a race car, though."
Third place went to rookie contender Jamie McMurray in a race slowed by a series record-tying 20 cautions.
"The way we finished Happy Hour, we were pathetic," said McMurray. "(Crew chief) Donnie Wingo made some changes on the car and it worked. We didn't have a scratch on the car all night. I felt really fortunate I was around with all the wrecks tonight."
The rest of the top finishers included Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson in fifth, Ryan Newman in sixth and Dale Jarrett in seventh.
Gordon, the polesitter, was the dominant car early on leading the first 66 circuits before Jeff Green took over the top spot by not pitting. Gordon reassumed the lead 17 laps later making a pass coming off turn two.
Five circuits later Green forced Michael Waltrip, the winner of the previous night's Busch Series race, down on the apron. Waltrip lost control at turn four and came down right in the path of another race favorite, nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace.
Wallace was taken to Bristol's Wellmont Regional Medical Center after the crushing impact. He underwent a CT scan, which came back negative, and was later released from the hospital.
Green, himself had a long night, being involved in four metal-crunching affairs. He tapped Todd Bodine on lap 5 to bring out the first slowdown period in a wreck that also involved Steve Park, Kyle Petty and Christian Fittipaldi.
The early stages however were all about Gordon, who, by pacing the field at lap 100, set a milestone leading his 15,000th career Winston Cup lap. He continued to lead until lap 163, when Harvick became the leader after pit stops.
Mike Skinner took the lead from Harvick on lap 188, but lost the lead to Gordon a couple of laps later. Marlin was the next driver to run in the number one position after another round of pit stops.
Marlin lost the lead on lap 262 to Martin, who started the race from the outside pole.
Newman took the lead in the middle stages until Marlin regained the lead on lap 341. Martin was eliminated on lap 346 after a bump from Johnny Sauter down the frontstretch sent him slamming into the turn one wall.
"Johnny Sauter, he lost it," said Martin. "I can't believe he's still out there running. He's been a weapon all night."
Likewise, Marlin's chances for winning came to a halt on lap 370 when he was hit from behind by Busch, a move the winner apologized for.
"I have to apologize to Sterling Marlin for running into him," said Busch.
"He was trying to let me go. He was trying to give me the line, but I was already half a lane up and I accidentally ran into him."
For his efforts, Busch not only took home a purse worth $237,565, but publicity that was worth more than any amount of money can buy.