Busch makes bold statement with road-course triumph in Sonoma

6/23/2008 - NASCAR

SONOMA, Calif. -- Jeff Gordon didn't think much about Kyle Busch as a road-course driver earlier in Busch's Sprint Cup career. He wasn't convinced early in Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway, either, when the 23-year-old driver appeared almost out of control passing him.

By the time the sun started to set behind the hills around this 1.99-mile track, as Busch did a victory burnout that created seemingly as much smoke as the forest fire that created havoc on this area 24 hours earlier, Gordon had a different opinion.

"You've got to give that guy a lot of credit," said Gordon, who finished third behind Busch and David Gilliland. "If you can keep it on the track all day, you get credit from me."

Busch, who hadn't won a Cup race on a road course, certainly didn't let Dale Earnhardt Jr. keep the spotlight long.

A week after watching the driver who forced him to leave Hendrick Motorsports for Joe Gibbs Racing end his 76-race losing streak, he took the checkered flag in a Sprint Cup race for the fifth time this season.

"Obviously he's maturing and learning," said Gordon, who has won more times (five) at Infineon than any driver. "That's what it's going to take for him to maintain that points lead and be a factor and continue to win races.

"If he can win here, it's going to boost his confidence. He might think he can win anywhere. He might be able to."

There's no reason to think otherwise. Busch has won on every kind of track NASCAR's premier series has to offer this season. He was first on the mile-and-a-half track at Atlanta, the restrictor-plate track at Talladega Superspeedway, arguably the toughest track on the circuit at Darlington Raceway and the short track at Dover.

The only thing missing from his Cup résumé before Sunday was a road-course win.

"[Check] another one off the list," Busch said as he took his parade lap.

This may have been the most impressive victory of Busch's career. He started 30th and showed little sign of being anything better than middle of the pack in Saturday's final practice.

He was so bad, "I was trying to figure out which tire barrier we were going to put it in."

"I have never turned a race car around that much," he said.

Much of the credit goes to crew chief Steve Addington and his crew for making the right adjustments. But just as much has to go to Busch, whose talent is ripening like the grapes of a top-grade California wine.

"It's a new year -- I guess it's a new me," Busch said.

The new Busch learned much of what enabled him to lead 78 of 110 laps from his old teammates, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Following road-course specialists such as Boris Said and Robby Gordon the past few years also helped.

But it wasn't until his Nationwide Series victory earlier this year on the road course in Mexico City when everything sunk in.

"Hopefully, we can keep it up," Busch said.

Busch was so dominant that he never felt threatened by Gilliland through multiple restarts over the final laps. Not even Tony Stewart, who was headed for a second-place finish before being spun out with four laps remaining, had anything for his teammate.

"We weren't as good as Kyle," Stewart said after rallying to finish 10th.

Jeff Gordon

If he can win here, it's going to boost
his confidence. He might think he can win anywhere. He might be able to.

-- Jeff Gordon on Kyle Busch

Nobody was.

Few have been all season. Busch is having the kind of season legends are made of. The fans even seem to be coming around, embracing him with cheers instead of the usual boos as he entered Victory Lane.

"I think maybe they were happy their guy [Earnhardt] won last weekend," he said facetiously. "They're over it."

By over it, Busch meant the incident in which he and Earnhardt got into each other racing for the lead in the closing laps at Richmond. Since then, Busch's bad-boy image has taken on a life of its own.

It hit almost a new level during last weekend's Craftsman Truck Series race when he spun out Ron Hornaday, prompting a harsh exchange with Hornaday's team owner, Kevin Harvick.

Busch didn't let an opportunity to take a shot back at Harvick pass on Sunday when describing how Harvick got into Jamie McMurray, who took out Stewart.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Busch said. "But when Harvick comes up to me and runs his mouth last weekend like he did it at Michigan and say all the stuff he did, he sort of stuck it right back in his mouth this weekend."

OK, Busch hasn't matured to the point he'll let such moments pass. But there's no question he's matured as a driver. He's becoming so well rounded that there appears no place he can't win.

And no, he doesn't believe the win was the result of running just one race this weekend after running six in three series in five states the past two weekends.

He reminded he was headed for a solid Cup finish at Michigan last week before getting caught in the fuel-mileage game.

"When you get into a slump of two weeks, it's not that bad," Busch said with a smile.

And Busch no longer is a bad driver on road courses. He actually didn't think he was that bad passing Gordon early.

"I was just trying to drive away, and when you try to drive away you tend to get a little loose and you tend to let it hang out a little bit and stuff and just try to get further away," he said.

"Once I looked up and he was about 10 car lengths back, I sort of slowed back down a little and got more into my rhythm and stayed smooth and felt like I was doing my job right."

He never looked back again.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.