- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Bristol Motor Speedway is Sunday's stop on the Nextel Cup schedule, and that means one thing: Kurt Busch is licking his chops.
While the feared, high-banked Tennessee oval may strike terror into most racers' hearts, the place has resembled Busch's personal playground the past few years.
He won his first race at Bristol in 2002, much to Jimmy Spencer's chagrin as most fans surely recall. Busch, of course, didn't stop there, winning four out of five at the track until Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into victory lane last August.
That last detail, not to mention the limited practice schedule before this Friday's qualifying, was enough motivation for Busch and crew chief Jimmy Fennig to elect to test at Bristol this time around.
After all, the reigning Nextel Cup champ won the Food City 500 the last three years and doesn't want to give up whatever advantage he's found at the track. The thing is, he says there's no big, mystifying secret to his success.
"It's been a combination of crew chief, car, driver and team," Busch said. "You can't be weak in one area and expect to win at any racetrack for that matter. But Bristol, it's a unique place. I went there my first time as a rookie, wrecked out real early. The fall race, Sharpie decided to sponsor it. I said, 'Wait a minute, this is going to be a problem here. This is my worst racetrack and my sponsor is now the sponsor of the fall race.'
"All kidding aside, I thought [I'd be fine] once I got comfortable with that racetrack on how you can be very aggressive with how you drive and how you set a race car up there, then be patient enough to know when to race and not get into trouble, and protect your race car. So it's a matter of protecting your race car at certain points and then being overly aggressive at other points of the race."
It's a fine line many drivers never really master. Then again, even the best at Bristol can be swept up in a wreck while innocently biding their time. It seemingly happens more often than not, which is why a number of drivers despise the track.
Busch may have felt that way at one time, but he's clearly left those days in the past. Now, he can't wait to roll into Tennessee.
"I get all juked up about it. Our team is definitely gassed up every time we go to Bristol," Busch said. "It's a fun racetrack for the team. Everybody that goes there, you're just in a different atmosphere at Bristol. ... It's a love-hate relationship. Right now our team definitely loves going there."
You can't be scared racing at Bristol, but you can't go all-out all the time, either. That's the easiest way to earn a trip behind the pit wall for lengthy repairs.
Busch crashed in his Bristol debut in 2001, and struggled mightily there in his second race. Somehow, though, things changed when he returned in '02 and he's been a force ever since.
In his mind, it all came down to adopting the proper approach.
"The first thing that crosses your mind is to protect your race car and allow yourself to look beyond the hood of your car and to absorb what the other drivers are doing immediately in front of you because if they're checking up, you have to be able get on the brakes quick and avoid any type of wreck that's going to happen," Busch said.
"That's the biggest thing, is just protecting your race car and knowing when you're able to race hard and when you're able to ride around."
It all sounds easy, but the carnage that inevitably ensues during 500 laps at Bristol is proof to the contrary. With passing on the high side extremely tough, drivers aren't afraid to simply move a slower car out of their way.
It is, however, possible to make a clean pass. Possible, just not easy. But getting clear of the crowd is the only way to settle into what passes for a comfort level.
"You have to find that other guy's weakness," Busch said. "Then when you're able to stretch it out, that's usually when you're in the lead or when you're just riding around halfway through the race and there's nobody around you, you can gain some track time. But there's always going to be yellows. You can't get too excited. You just have to wait for the race to come to you."
Busch readily admits he didn't do that his first two trips to the track. And Bristol wasn't the only place he struggled that year, either.
The problem was simply magnified at Bristol.
"My right foot was very heavy. I had to race hard and I wanted to go quick," he says of his first Cup season. "That hurt me at many places.
"Then at Bristol, it definitely killed me. I made 50 laps my first race there. In the fall race, my rookie year, I think I was eight laps down, running all on my own. It's a place where you have to learn patience. And that was my worst racetrack, my rookie year. That definitely helped me develop as a driver as I continued on my second year working with Jimmy Fennig for the first time, he just taught me so much, I knew I had a lot to learn then."
Busch has learned plenty, but knows the setup that worked in the past won't necessarily get the job done this time around. That's why the team tested, so he's ready for what he expects will be stiff competition.
"Right now, I've seen Jeff Gordon run competitively there. Dale Jr. really put a hurt on the competition in the fall race with the way that he won the Sharpie 500," said Busch, handicapping his main adversaries. "Then there's guys like Sterling Marlin who is a sleeper kind of guy, but he is always competitive at Bristol. So we're definitely looking out for him.
"Ryan Newman has been getting quicker there. This time around might be one where he runs in the top five competitively. Jamie McMurray has been consistent there. There's a group of guys that you definitely watch in practice and to see what their lap times look like for the long run, and that gives us a better indication of who we're going to be looking out for come lap 400."
It's been a whole year since Busch won at Bristol, so he's itching to get back to victory lane.
"We're due," he said. "We'll knock on wood, but we don't want that bad luck. This time around we tested to try to help with ... continuing on with our run of three in a row. We want to do four in a row in the spring race and go there [in August] and win the Sharpie 500."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
The secret to winning at Bristol is knowing when not to race, Kurt Busch says. And he should know.