Kyle Busch gave himself the ultimate birthday present by winning Saturday night's Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
The driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) turns 25 on Sunday, and on the eve of his birthday he scored his 17th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of 2010 and his second at Richmond. Last year Busch won at Richmond the day of his 24th birthday.
“It's just unbelievable to be back in victory lane,” Busch said. “I got to say thanks to M&M's and, of course, all these guys that do so much work on this team. I want to thank the fans. Always great to have all their support. It's nice to win on my birthday weekend, too. These guys on this M&M's Camry team have done such an awesome job. Can't thank Dave Rogers (crew chief) enough. What an awesome guy he is. He's made this team what it is this year and these guys have dug in really hard and given that extra effort.”
Early on, it appeared Busch would run away with the event as he lead 221 of the first 229 circuits of the 400-lap event. At one point, he had lapped all but eight cars and built a lead of more than five seconds. And while Busch was beating the competition on the track, his M&M's pit crew was equally good in the pits.
However, just after the halfway point, the handling on Busch's M&M's Toyota began to get erratic and the Las Vegas native fell back to fifth-place.
“The car was phenomenal in the beginning,” said Busch, who never fell out of the top-six all night. “We were making minor changes to it to make it a little bit better. There about lap 170, 200, we started falling behind on the long runs, getting really loose. We kept plugging away. Dave never gave up. The guys on pit road kept putting in some really good pit stops. I kept driving what I had. I couldn't make much out of what was going on out there on the track, especially with traffic.
“We fall back to fifth, but it felt like 15th, for as bad as we were running. It was a character-building night, for sure. We kept our head down and kept digging. We didn't let it bother us too bad. I felt like we were getting passed. But it was weird because you had guys that were short pitting, you had guys that were on different strategies that were coming to pit road. You got guys passing you that have just come off pit road, like the 38 (Kevin Conway) car passing me, (Sam) Hornish is passing me, guys like that on tires. I'm thinking, man, I've got to be running 15th by now. But it was just a weird night. So as far as all of the things go inside the racecar, we kept our handle on it.”
Busch did indeed keep a handle on his emotions while the handling of his M&M's Toyota came to life late in the race. During a caution on lap 373, Busch hit pit road for his final stop of the night and opted for four tires, fuel and a tire pressure adjustment. From there, he restarted sixth, survived two more short caution periods and worked his way back into the top-five to restart second on lap 395.
For the final five-lap sprint, he staved off four-time champion Jeff Gordon and led the final five laps en route to victory.
“I figured I was going to get the outside (lane on the restart),” Busch said. “So I was just kind of thinking the whole time during the caution flag, the whole weekend everybody was taking the bottom. All I really knew was just to get into turn one smooth and be able to get a good launch up off of turn two to get down the backstretch, then make sure I got into (turn) three without overdriving it. On the previous restart, when I was with (Kevin) Harvick, I kept overdriving, locking up the left front tire into turn three, sliding up the track. I knew if I could get through turn three okay, hammer down off of turn four, get him clear, it would be pretty good. That's what I did.