Bristol brings victory, respect for Busch

March 26, 2002 9:57 AM
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Races at Bristol Motor Speedway never leave the fans disappointed for lack of feuding. Last weekend’s Busch and Winston Cup races became instant classics and another chapter in the long history of rumbles on the raceway.

This year’s chapter has an interesting twist for Las Vegas because the center of attention was 23 year old Kurt Busch, who held on to win his first Winston Cup race. The Las Vegas native became the youngest driver to win a race since 1994 when Jeff Gordon at Charlotte at age 22.

Busch made a veteran type winning move on Jimmy Spencer, one of the roughest, toughest drivers on the circuit, with 55 laps remaining. The winning move involved some bumping and got the hard-nosed Spencer sideways. After the race, the war of words started.

 “Kurt Busch just smashed right into me,” Spencer said. “I passed him fair and square and he just smashed into my back bumper . . . That’s OK. I never forget. The only thing is, when I smash back, he won’t finish.”

Then in a typical Bristol/WWF retort, Busch responded.

“Last year at Phoenix, he flat dumped us when he was a lapped car and we were running in eighth place, He’s the one who never forgets. I guess we could say that I don’t forget what happened at Phoenix.”

Spencer, who closed at 35-1 at Station Casinos properties, is one driver you can bet will keep his word with retaliation. But the bottom line Sunday was that Busch raised his stature as a driver to a whole new level with the win, something that has eluded Spencer for eight years despite presenting his bully image so well. Along with the $143,840 check, Busch now has a higher level of confidence, respectability and toughness to be one of the top drivers on tour.

What did Busch think about his odds back home?

“The line in Vegas? 50-1, 10-1, I don’t know. My mom always puts money on me. I tell her not to, but I’m glad she did today.”

Busch has been 18-1 every week since the Vegas race, but now that’s he proved that he can win and that his car is more than just capable of running with leaders, those odds are a thing of the past.

The win pushed Busch into fifth in the points after six races, 137 points behind leader Sterling Marlin, who finished outside the Top 10 for the first time all season. With no race this Easter weekend, it may be a good time to check out some Winston Cup Championship future odds on a few drivers.

Though Jeff Gordon (3-1) hasn’t had any success this season he still sits 10th in the points, 192 behind Marlin. It’s not likely that Gordon will continue to slide for long, but the glaring trend of 13 straight races without a Top 5 finish, a ­­career worst, lend evidence that he may not repeat as champ.

Here are a few drivers other than Marlin (even) and Tony Stewart (8-5) that make good cases for winning the points ­­title. Busch (10-1): He’s been competitive in every race this season and now fulfills all the promise and hype with the ­­reality of a win. Sure he’s young and it takes a veteran’s savvy to be good even when the car isn’t to get the quality finish, but so far we haven’t seen him in a bad car. The leadership of Crew Chief Jimmy Fennig is a major bonus for this team’s chances.

Matt Kenseth (6-1): Currently sits second, only 92 points behind. With a poor finish by Marlin and a Top 5 next week at Texas, Kenseth would be the new leader. So far he has a win with four Top 10 finishes. Kenseth is not exactly the biggest name out there, but like Busch, comes from the rejuvenated Roush Racing stable.

Where it used to be Mark Martin (20-1) and Jeff Burton (12-1) only two years ago battling for the top spot, we now see the younger Roush generation taking charge. Thus far, Kenseth’s season and stage of his career look similar to Alan Kulwicki’s 1991 championship season where he dueled the big names to the final week for the crown.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10-1): Currently sixth in points. Little E hit the fountain of success the last few weeks to give him three Top 5 finishes in six races. Someday he will be a champion, perhaps even this year. However, just as Kenseth brings on memories of Kulwicki, Junior echoes similarities to Davey Allison, a driver who lost out on that final 1991 weekend. Junior’s style, like Allison’s, is all out all the time. Patience is something he just doesn’t have time for, which will hurt him in a points chase.

Rusty Wallace (8-1): Currently third in points. Wallace has solid races every week. Nothing dominant nor even being close to a win yet, but there he is. As we make comparisons to past champions, we can look at Benny Parsons, who won just once in 1973. Also, Terry Labonte combined for only four wins in his two driving championships but finished in the Top 10 nearly every week.

Overall consistency is the key and with so much parity involved in today’s brand of racing, no one is going to run away with the title nor can anyone be counted out as of yet, unless your name is Buckshot.

Early odds for the favorites April 7 at Texas: Earnhardt (6-1), Gordon (7-1), Marlin (7-1),

Bobby Labonte (7-1), Stewart (7-1), Dale Jarrett (8-1), Jeff Burton (10-1), Ricky Rudd (12-1), Wallace (12-1), Busch (12-1)  and Kenseth (16-1).