“When the 8 car dropped out, everybody's eyes lit up. Everyone's foot got heavy. It was a whole new race."|
By Denise N. Maloof, SI.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After winning three of the final five races of 2002, Kurt Busch picked up where he left off Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.
Busch finished second in the rain-shortened 45th annual Daytona 500. Not a bad finish for a third-year Winston Cup driver. But Busch, who finished third in the 2002 points race, called it, “bittersweet.”
He should know. He was the victor in last fall’s rain-called race at Atlanta, and just like all the guys lined up behind him, he would have liked a shot at Sunday’s eventual winner, Michael Waltrip.
“It's the greatest race that we go to every year,” said Busch, who nevertheless seemed to understand Mother Nature. “It's the beginning of the season for us. Whether or not we continued forward, it was the weather's decision, and with the whole Eastern seaboard right now being snowed in and rained in, there was a lot of weather that made the final outcome what it is.”
Busch’s disappointment was underscored by his starting spot -- 36th. When you work that hard to be a factor, early endings are more than anticlimactic.
The climb was gradual. Busch was 17th by lap 10 and 11th by lap 20. He fell back to 17th on lap 50, but he jumped into the top-five by lap 70 – running fourth behind defending Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Reaching the top, however, was nearly impossible, especially with the favored Dale Earnhardt Inc. duo of Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. up front.
“With the way that DEI has a threshold on the front of the competition, they're able to do things to help one another maintain the lead, and the other to maintain second, and we're all racing for third,” Busch said. “Today, I ended up in second place just due to the fact that there was a mechanical issue on that 8 car.”
Earnhardt fell from contention on lap 89 after a dead alternator drained his battery. The anointed favorite, Earnhardt started on the outside pole after winning the Budweiser Shootout, his 125-mile qualifying race and the Busch Series season-opener.
"When the 8 car dropped out, everybody's eyes lit up," Busch said. "Everyone's foot got heavy. It was a whole new race."
But one that wouldn’t see fruition, which was the main reason behind Busch’s disappointment at running only 109 of 200 laps.
“We do most of our stuff under the radar and real quietly,” he said of how he and his crew had worked from 36th to second. Yet it wasn’t a completely quiet afternoon.
During the only pit sequence in Thursday’s second 125-mile qualifying race, Busch had banged into Kevin Harvick after slamming his brakes to meet the pit-road speed limit. Busch said radio glitches caused him to dive for pit road at the last second, and Harvick, naturally, wasn’t happy about it.
Both Harvick’s Chevrolet and Busch’s Ford needed repair afterward, and Busch’s crew chief, Jimmy Fenning, decided to stick with the patched-up chassis.
“No backup car for us,” Busch said. “We ran the primary car all week, and with all the practices they give us, it for sure looked like a backup car by Saturday afternoon.
”We had to pull out a lot of Bondo, put some sheet metal back on the rear fenders, straighten out the rear bumper.”
And he may have some further mending to do, if he chooses -- the fence variety. He and Harvick were involved in another pit-road snafu on Sunday after their pit stalls ended up being back-to-back, as luck would have it.
Harvick’s team owner, Richard Childress, complained during a mid-race radio interview that Busch had slid through the No. 29 pit once and run over the team’s jack on another occasion.
“They just need to put a restrictor plate on his foot because obviously his foot doesn't register with his brain,” Harvick said.
Busch said he couldn’t help Sunday’s incidents because he, Jerry Nadeau and Harvick were all squashed together in the pits.
“We're going 55 to 0 in a space where you can't park anything,” Busch said. “We're all trying to do two tires, or fuel only or four tires, and it's the most congested pit area with those three cars pulling in that way.
“I'm in the middle, so I'm making guys mad behind me and in front of me, so what am I supposed to do?"