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Busch survives wrecks to pip Stewart

19 February 2012

If Kyle Busch was hoping for a nice, quiet and calm start to his 2012 season after all the controversy, frustration and disappointment that consumed him at the end of last year, then Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout curtain raiser was perhaps not what the doctor ordered. But if he wanted a stunning win against all the odds that will inevitably boost his confidence into high orbit, then he couldn't have asked for anything better.

Busch had picked second place on the grid in the blind draw setting the starting order for the non-championship race, but an accident in practice on Friday sent him to the back-up car which obliged him to start from the back along with with brother Kurt and Penske duo Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger. But with only 25 cars running in this exhibition event getting back to the front was by no means an insurmountable problem for any of the quartet.

Polesitter Martin Truex Jr. was struggling to hold off Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead before Kevin Harvick took over on lap 6. Behind them, pack racing was re-emerging as the dominant race style du jour after least year's obsession with the controversial two-car tandem drafting style seen last season; but this meant that the field was vulnerable to a big wreck being started by a small incident at the head of the line.

And that's exactly what happened on lap 9: contact from David Ragan spun the #27 of Paul Menard which then sucked in the cars of Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Michael Waltrip, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. Menard, Ragan and Waltrip were done for the day while Hamlin and Kahne fell off the lead lap as they recovered from the fall-out; Jeff Burton would also end up dropping a lap with a subsequent cut tyre.

"I just got into the back of Menard," admitted Ragan. "You're pushing a little bit, and I guess he was pushing whoever was in front of him, and when you've got the meat in between the sandwich, you usually get wrecked."

It left Menard pining for the good old days of two car-drafting: "The tandem drafting seemed to be a lot easier to pass" and "a lot less chaotic", he said. "This is pretty damn chaotic, but we'll fix it."

Gordon's car was slightly damaged but it didn't stop him finishing the first 25-lap segment of the Shootout in second place behind Jamie McMurray. During the shceduled ten minute hiatus before segment 2, cars were able to get new tyres, refuel and get routine chassis adjustments.

Behind McMurray and Gordon for the restart were Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Joey Logano, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer. Biffle had taken over the lead by lap 31 when the next caution came out, for a spat between Michael Waltrip Racing team mates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. which saw Bowyer get spun out.

As usual with pack racing, the lead ebbed and flowed over the next few laps: Biffle led at the restart, then Montoya popped up for a lap in front, then McMurray held the lead for a spell before Truex, Johnson, Harvick and Jeff Gordon all came on strong.

While this was happening up front, Kyle Busch had his first brush with disaster of the night on lap 48: Busch was twice turned into a spin by the front bumper of Jimmie Johnson's, and twice he was able to pull off a near-miraculous save to keep the #18 pointing in the right direction after running onto the apron at turn 2.

"I tried going down slowly, and Jimmie just must have been there a little bit, turned me sideways and got me on the apron," said Busch. "Scared everybody half to death, including me!"

Busch's near miss left the field string out, which was just as well as the second of the night's three multi-car wrecks took place on lap 56. It started with Ambrose, Logano and Truex Jr. bumping into one another in the pack into turn 2, and the fall-out then took out Earnhardt Jr., Harvick and Kenseth.

That meant that only ten cars remained on the lead lap at the next restart. Kyle Busch himself was toward the back of this group, and described the situation as "intense" with everyone pushing for position. "Pushing five rows deep, everybody squirrelly," he said, adding: "It was a great race from my seat; hopefully it was from everybody else's."

Ten laps later - and just four laps from the end - Busch had powered his way back through the pack and was tangling with Jeff Gordon for the lead. Then Tony Stewart emerged as a threat to them both, sliding down in front of Busch for the top spot as the race went into its penultimate lap - and then there was chaos.

With Busch checking up and getting loose because of Stewart in front, Gordon was all over him and ended up making contact. The #18 was sent spinning onto the apron for the second time of the night; and once again, somehow, he saved it. "Stab and steer, stab and steer," Busch explained. "That's what you do. And some brakes. There are brakes involved, too."

Gordon was not so lucky: the contact sent him up into the path of the Chevrolets of Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray, and all three cars ended up in the wall. Then Jimmie Johnson arrived on the scene, and the #48's nose managed to get underneath Gordon's right rear bumper and flipped the car into the air, leaving it barrel-rolling and sliding upside down toward the entrance to pit lane.

"That's the first time I've been upside down in 19, 20 years," said Gordon, who was unharmed in the spectacular accident. "We were in position to have a shot at winning this thing. That's what I feel bad about.

"The hit to the wall was much harder than any of the rest of it," he admitted. "The roll was pretty soft and pretty easy. The protection we have inside these cars are amazing because I didn't even hardly feel any of it. The toughest part was when you are laying upside-down and you can't get out of the car."

"With Gordon behind me, I don't know what the deal was there," said Busch of what had caused the accident. "He was pushing on me through1 and 2, just making me really loose ... I'd like to talk to him about it.

"When we came off 2, he had me sideways, and then all the way down the backstretch, I was still sideways - left, right, left, right, everywhere," he continued. "Then we were off into 3 and he turned me sideways again ... Just kind of moving me around, I think trying to move me out of the way."

Gordon didn't quite see it that way: "I was joking with somebody that he was the one wrecking that I was trying to avoid and I'm the one that ended up wrecking and he wins the race!"

As an independent third party witness, Jimmie Johnson came down on Gordon's side of the fence, despite being impressed by Kyle Busch's survival instincts.

“He was driving the wheels out of that thing trying to keep it from spinning," said Johnson, saying that the #18 had looked real loose. "He had an amazing save earlier in the day and nobody wrecked. That time, it just got a little too loose on him and it came up the track ... The next thing you know the #24 was up on his side and I was staring at his exhaust pipes for a while."

As a result of the wreck, the race went seven laps beyond the scheduled race distance and into a green-white-chequered finish scenario, with Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski making up the front four for the green flag. Ambrose was pushed to the lead by Keselowski, but the real threat were coming up fast from further back.

Undeterred by the hair raising events of the night so far, Kyle Busch was back - and he had selected race leader Tony Stewart to form a temporary alliance with, the #18 pushing the #14 clear out in front. Once the white flag came out it was a matter of "next flag finishes the race" and it was all about which of the two of them had a nose in front when it happened.

Just 100 yards from the finish line, Busch made his move and slingshot out of the final turn to slip past Stewart on the outside line to manage to lead by just 0.013s at the line.

"Coming to the line, I've been in that situation - reversed - before with Tony," said Busch. "Hadn't ended up so well. This time it turned out all right. We made it past him and beat him to the line."

Although he'd lost out, Stewart was overall happy with the evening's work. It had been the first time the Cup field had driven with the new electronic fuel injection systems, and followed a slew of regulation changes designed to restore pack racing to NASCAR. In Stewart's eyes, it had all been a success.

"I had fun racing at Daytona again, which I haven't had for a while," he said. "This is better than having to sit there and stare at the back of a spoiler for 500 miles."


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