Busch starts strong, but still needs to finish

By Scott Serrano
PA SportsTicker Auto Racing Editor


We’ve seen this from Kyle Busch before.

After winning in his hometown of Las Vegas on Sunday, the 23-year-old phenom has started the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season much the same way he did last year.

The victory came after Busch had the dominant car at the season-opening Daytona 500, but was collected in a wreck and finished 41st. Busch then bounced back to run a solid third at Fontana.

Sunday’s win in the Shelby 427 demonstrated Busch’s immense talent.

Minutes into the first practice session on Friday, Busch’s Toyota experienced engine problems, and his crew was forced to change the motor.

With a new engine and despite completing only six miles of practice, Busch blistered the 1.5-mile oval during his qualifying run and set a new track record of 29.033 seconds at 185.995 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, because of the engine change, Busch had to begin the race from the rear of the 43-car field.

But he didn’t stay there long.

Busch methodically drove to the front of the field throughout the race and finally took the lead with 57 laps to go. After a late round of pit stops, he came out third during a restart with 22 laps remaining.

From there, it took Busch just five laps to chase down the leader, pushing Clint Bowyer up the track to move out front again.

Busch then had to hold on for two final restarts for his 13th career victory.

“We just had to battle back,” Busch said. “We didn’t have the best car out there, but we had a car we kept on working on. I don’t know where I get credited for winning this thing, whether it’s from the back or from the pole. Either way, we conquered both of them.”

Winning during the Sprint Cup’s first 26 races has become old hat for the younger Busch, who rolled to eight victories in his first year piloting the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Busch’s eighth and final win came on August 10 at Watkins Glen, but his title hopes evaporated after three straight poor finishes to start the “Chase for Championship.”

At this point, you can pretty much lock the Busch into the Chase and consider him a serious threat to derail Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a fourth straight title.

But all that talk will have to wait 23 more races until the playoffs start at New Hampshire in September.

Stay tuned.

IF YOU AIN’T FIRST, YOU’RE LAST: It did not take long for Matt Kenseth’s hopes of an unprecedented third straight season-opening victory to be dashed.

Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford Fusion blew a motor just seven laps into Sunday’s Shelby 427, ending his two-race winning streak and leaving him with a last-place finish.

“Yeah, first is better than last, that’s for sure,” Kenseth said.

Kenseth won the season-opening Daytona 500 and last week’s race at Fontana. No driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history has ever won the first three races of the year.

But Kenseth’s engine began to misfire during warmup laps, and he lost power just as the race went green.

“Winning the third race, seriously, was the farthest thing from my mind than anything,” Kenseth said. “We approach it one race at a time and I’m very, very thankful for the first two weeks of the season that we had and for the opportunity to drive this car. You’re gonna break stuff once in a while.”

LABONTE STILL GOING STRONG: Bobby Labonte’s demise apparently has been greatly exaggerated.

The 44-year-old former Cup champion finished fifth Sunday at Las Vegas and currently sits 10th in the standings while driving for the newly merged Hall of Fame and Yates racing teams that have struggled on their own in recent seasons.

Labonte’s career appeared to be on the downside after he recorded a mere two top-10 finishes last year with Petty Enterprises and just five top-10s in the past two years combined.

“I’m really excited about it,” Labonte said. “These guys have done a great job. We’ve got so many great people there working for us and I just feel like we’ve got all this confidence on our side right now.

“I’m excited we got us a top five, and we’re looking forward to each and every weekend.”

DALE JR. WATCH: Is this the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. matches results with his popularity? Let’s track his progress throughout the season:

Dale Jr. is officially of the top-35 bubble watch!

Thanks to his 10th-place finish at Las Vegas (despite suffering another pit road penalty), Earnhardt is all the way up to 29th in the standings.

“We really, really needed it,” Earnhardt said. “We know that we need to put together about six or seven good weeks to give ourselves a shot at getting back into the battle for the Chase.

“We’ve just got to keep our heads on straight. The problem with speeding on pit road is just trying too hard, and that can hurt you just as bad as not trying enough. We’ve just got to be smart.”

If Earnhardt drops just seven spots lower over the next two races, he will be without a guaranteed starting spot and will be forced to qualify for races on time.

Prognosis: A little better.

STEWART VS. LOGANO: Tony Stewart, who left Joe Gibbs Racing to run for his own Stewart Haas Racing team this season, was replaced in the No. 20 Toyota by 18-year-old rookie phenom Joey Logano. Let’s see how the two are faring this season.

Stewart had a pair of eighth-place finishes through the first two races, then slipped to 26th at Las Vegas.

Logano finished dead last in the Daytona 500, then ran 26th at Fontana, one lap down. But he rebounded with a 13th at Las Vegas - his best Sprint Cup result so far.

Edge through the three races: Stewart by five car lengths.

SAY WHAT? “Oh, I just keep giving everybody ammunition,” - Dale Earnhardt Jr. on being penalized for speeding down pit road.

GREEN-WHITE-CHECKERED FINISH: David Reutimann finished fourth at Las Vegas, posting his first career top-five finish in 66 starts. He currently is fifth in points, the highest ranking ever by Michael Waltrip Racing. … Greg Biffle broke a 76-race NASCAR Nationwide Series winless drought Saturday with his victory in the Sam’s Town 300. … Jeff Gordon leads the standings for the first time since October 2007. Gordon is ahead of second-place Clint Bowyer by 18 points.

Feedback? E-mail scott.serrano@pa-sportsticker.com.

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Updated Monday, Mar 2, 2009