- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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To say Kurt Busch will be excited to take the track Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway would be a major understatement.
At one time, Rusty Wallace owned the Tennessee short track, and much of his success came while driving for Penske Racing South. Busch has been a dominant factor at the high-banked bullring of late, but that success came with Roush Racing.
So with Busch in the car vacated by Wallace, expectations remain high. The driver says that before the season even started, his team had circled Bristol as a race to win.
"We're so excited to go to Bristol; this is definitely the focal point of the beginning of the season for us," Busch said. "I'm just excited to have the chance to drive this car at Bristol. I know how many times I've tried to hold it off because it was just going that much faster than mine. To jump into that car, we know we've got the best car possible to go to Bristol with."
A little extra pep in the team's step can't hurt at this point, as the first four races haven't exactly been much to shout about for the 2004 Nextel Cup champion. A late-race wreck stymied Busch at Daytona, and that was followed by a pair of 16th-place finishes before two cars got together on a restart and forced Busch into the wall at Atlanta.
So instead of challenging for the lead, as had been the case early in the day, Busch was saddled with a 37th-place finish that has left him 27th in points. Needless to say, it's not exactly what he had in mind for this season.
Busch isn't at all down on his team, however. Quite the contrary, in fact.
"I would not try to boast and to pound our chest real hard, but I would give us an A right now with the way the team has come out of the box strong, with adapting to new setups, a new driver, pit stops, crew chief in a new position, driver learning different things from the sponsor," Busch said. "We've had a lot to adjust to. We've had a short amount of time to put it all together.
"For us, we've led laps at three of the four races so far. We've wrecked at three of the four races so far. That's why our performances haven't always ended up positive at the end of the day. What we take away from it is valuable lessons in setup and in knowledge with team communication. We've definitely had a great four races so far, and we've taken away something from each of the four races."
Busch can't be blamed for high expectations heading into this one. In 10 starts at Bristol, he has four wins and seven top-10 finishes. Wallace, meanwhile, won there nine times.
To say the newest driver of the No. 2 Dodge has come a long way in a hurry would be an understatement.
"As a matter of fact, it was downright ugly," Busch said of his Bristol Cup debut in spring 2001. "The first time I crashed that day, it was on my own. The second time I wrecked, I was in a big pileup. I guess you could say that the third time was the charm, in that we punctured the radiator in that crash. That put us out for good.
"[Until then,] they just kept on fixing it and putting me back out there to get track time. When we were finally done for the day, I looked up on the board and there were still about 400 laps of racing left. They didn't have the tunnel down in the third turn at the time, so I was forced to sit there and watch all the others go at it for another three hours."
In fact, Busch completed just 118 of the 500 laps that day, coming home 42nd. His first Cup win came at the track a year later, thanks in part to lessons learned in his debut there.
Promising himself never to get caught up in that situation again, he worked hard to develop a positive attitude toward the track. He also has had a little bit of racing luck on his side, the type of luck that has been absent to start this season.
"As far as the strategy behind my success, I learned from the very first race that you have to be around at the finish to do well at Bristol," Busch said. "It really is a situation of surviving the first 400 laps -- keeping the fenders on the thing and staying out of the wall. Then, if you're in good shape after four-fifths of the race, it's time to really get down to business during the final 100 laps."
If Busch is there, he'll likely be battling drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon for position. Each runs extremely well at Bristol, although five-time winner Gordon hasn't been at the top of his game there lately, garnering just one win since 1998.
A late-race suspension problem hindered Gordon last year, and he's hoping to make up for that this time.
"We need to take advantage of our strengths and post good finishes," Gordon said. "In our sport, there will be days like [last year]. But you have to limit them."
But at Bristol, avoiding trouble isn't always easy,
"Traffic is something you can't get away from," Gordon said. "It always seems like there are 42 cars right behind you and another 42 cars right in front of you."
Last spring, those lucky enough to be running at the finish were all behind Harvick, who loves Bristol.
"Bristol is special to me because it brings back a lot of memories," Harvick said. "I grew up on a half-mile, high-banked racetrack [Mesa Marin] in Bakersfield [Calif.]. I know Bristol is a lot more banked, but it's kind of the same mind-set for me driving around the racetrack.
"It's short track beating and banging, a lot of fun and what I really like to do. I seem to have a lot of success every time I go there, so I'm always looking forward to going back."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
Kurt Busch has had good luck at Bristol in his short career. He might need it the way his season is going, writes Mark Ashenfelter.