Kyle Busch fell a lap down midway through the race, and after racing his way back into contention, needed an awesome save to keep himself from triggering a massive crash. “Typical Talladega,” he thought.
Only this time, the crash happened behind Busch. Instead of leaving Talladega Superspeedway with a smashed-up car, he drove into Victory Lane. The kid who couldn’t conquer Talladega finally won at the harrowing track Sunday, and in this breakout season for Busch, it was only fitting that he coasted to the victory.
“I’d like to say that I’m smarter than I look, but that’s certainly not the case,” Busch said. “Today was just due to having a great car. Getting a lap down, that was like, `Oh, typical Talladega’ there. But I didn’t wreck today and I was definitely happy of that, and I was greatly appreciative that I was able to win today because it’s certainly been a struggle for several years.
“I don’t think I’ve ever finished one here yet without some sort of damage. We still had damage, but it wasn’t enough to keep us from Victory Lane.”
Busch came back from a lap down, then survived a near wreck with Jamie McMurray for his first win at Talladega. It was won under caution when a 12-car accident brought out the yellow flag on the final lap, freezing the field and allowing Busch to slowly make his way across the finish line – a rare completion considering his history at the track.
In six previous Cup races, Busch failed to finish four times and wrecked out of both events last season. His accident in last spring’s Cup race was so hard, he cracked his head-and-neck restraint while finishing 37th. And his wreck in the fall officially ended his championship hopes.
But this year, he can’t seem to do anything wrong. His victory was his second Sprint Cup win of the year, seventh spanning all three of NASCAR’s top series, and gave him wins four weekends in a row dating to a Nationwide Series victory in Texas earlier this month.
He has victories this season on a road course, an intermediate track, a pseudo-short track and a superspeedway.
It’s made for an incredible start to the season for the sometimes bratty Busch, who was fired from Hendrick Motorsports last year despite his immense talent because the team couldn’t tolerate his often irrational temperament.
So Joe Gibbs Racing snatched him up, and the team couldn’t be more thrilled with its find. Busch, who turns 23 next week, has given the organization assurance it has a strong future even if two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart opts to leave the team when his contract expires.
Although this hot start has solidified the decision to sign him, team president J.D. Gibbs said the team knew it had a superstar on its hands after watching him pace last October’s test at Atlanta in his very first time working with JGR and crew chief Steve Addington.
“The first time we got a glimpse of it was that test at Atlanta in the fall, we realized we had something very special,” Gibbs said. “You could see it in Steve’s eyes. I just think there’s a lot of things that really fit in the package, and first and foremost, you need to have that guy behind the wheel. And he just has a natural talent.
“We’re blessed to be a part of it, to see it. And the exciting thing is you forget how young he is. So how many years do we have left to grow together is really encouraging.”
This season is so perfect, it didn’t even matter that Busch fell a lap down midway through the race when he missed his pit during a stop and had to circle back to try again on the next lap. But he got the lap back as the “lucky dog” on the next caution, and it put him in position to drive back to the front in his Toyota.
During that charge back to the front, he nearly turned sideways after contact with McMurray. Both drivers had to work to stave off wrecking the field.
“The save, I didn’t know what was happening,” Busch said. “I thought I was going out of the park. Luckily, somehow, we got off each other and kept it straight.”
Then Juan Pablo Montoya hooked up behind him, pushing Busch to the front, where he was able to race for the win.
Montoya finished second to match his career best on an oval since moving to NASCAR midway through 2006. He also was second at Indy last July.
“I didn’t want to finish second,” Montoya said. “It’s hard. I would think I would have tried to make a move coming out of four.”
Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, finished third.
“The whole race was crazy,” Hamlin said. “Everyone got antsy.”
That showed in the waning laps, which were marked by three separate accidents. The first came with 14 laps to go when Stewart, the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver, was stuck in the middle of a huge pack of cars. Bobby Labonte got forced to the bottom of the track by another car, and it set in motion a six-car accident that ended Stewart’s day.
Despite leading a race-high 61 laps, he dropped to 0-for-20 in Talladega Cup races.
“That’s what happens late in these races,” Stewart said as he surveyed his damaged car. “If it was my fault, I’m sorry. But by looking at the video, I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
Labonte wrecked again shortly after the restart for another caution, setting up a final re-start with five laps to go and Michael Waltrip leading.
But Jimmie Johnson moved Waltrip out of the way, briefly giving Johnson the lead before he lost his momentum and a Busch-led train raced past him on the outside. Busch had Jeff Gordon on his bumper, and the ending was shaping up for another last-lap duel: Four of the past six Talladega races ended with a last-lap pass.
Montoya, with a huge push from temporary teammate David Stremme – he was filling in for Dario Franchitti, who broke his ankle in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race – moved past Gordon and onto Busch’s bumper with Hamlin behind him.
Knowing Hamlin was likely to work with Busch if he couldn’t win the race himself, Montoya bided his time as he considered how to make a run on Busch. But it never came into play, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray made contact, McMurray hit the wall and a ton of other cars piled up around them.
Montoya and Hamlin didn’t fret over what could have been.
Asked what he could have done, Montoya said to ask Hamlin.
“Ask Denny, he was the guy behind me,” he said.
“Yeah, I was going to dictate the winner,” Hamlin joked.
“He’s right,” Montoya replied.
But in all seriousness, Hamlin said he was going to be a player. In his mind, he planned to push Montoya alongside Busch then go three-wide in a race to the finish line. Joe Gibbs Racing, they would have frowned upon me pushing somebody else past Kyle,” Hamlin said. “But I was going to go for it myself.”
All that planning was for naught as Busch continued his white-hot start to his first season with JGR.