Busch fends off Burton in Car of Tomorrow debut

Updated: March 26, 2007, 7:36 AM ET
Associated Press

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- As Jeff Burton considered how to beat Kyle Busch in the closing laps at Bristol Motor Speedway, he couldn't shake the lessons his mother taught him as a child.

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Kyle Busch took the checkered flag at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday, winning NASCAR's first Car of Tomorrow venture and giving Chevrolet its 600th victory. The top 10 finishers (unofficial):
1. Kyle Busch, Chevrolet
2. Jeff Burton, Chevrolet
3. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet
4. Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet
5. Greg Biffle, Ford
6. Jeff Green, Chevrolet
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet
8. Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet
9. Jamie McMurray, Ford
10. Casey Mears, Chevrolet
Complete results | Standings
"My mother always told me to do onto other people the way you want them to do you," Burton remembered. "That's the only thing I know to do. I've always tried to let the guy I am racing with set the rules. ... Kyle drives hard. He drives really hard. But he's always raced me with respect."

And with that, Burton refused to bump Busch out of the way Sunday, instead pulling alongside of him before Busch beat him in a drag race to the finish line to win the first Car of Tomorrow race.

The two have battled in the Busch Series this season, and had a stirring door-to-door duel in Las Vegas two weeks ago that Burton won as Busch spun backward across the finish line.

Burton credited Busch with racing clean that day, and both drivers had it fresh in their memories on the final three laps Sunday.

"Jeff Burton easily could have dumped me there in three and four, but I think our Vegas finish helped me out a little bit with that," Busch said. "I think I had some brownie points to use up."

Busch took the lead with 16 laps to go on a smooth pass around Denny Hamlin in thick traffic and stayed there through a pair of cautions. He had driven away from the competition when the 15th and final caution set up a three-lap overtime.

With Busch and teammate Jeff Gordon running 1-2 at the restart, the two plotted their own strategy with their respective crew chiefs.

"Well, good job guys," Busch sighed at the final caution. "We'll do what we can. I can't promise you anything."

"He'll be nice," crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "He'll play nice."

It didn't sound that way on Gordon's channel.

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"Tell that 5, if I get a fender underneath him, he better think about the fact that we're teammates," Gordon said. "If I don't get a fender underneath him, I won't move him out of the way."

It never mattered, though, as Burton jumped past Gordon on the restart and quickly pulled onto Busch's rear bumper. Burton looked low and Busch threw a block, then he went high and Busch blocked that, too.

Burton finally pulled alongside Busch as they closed in on the finish line, but Busch nipped him at the flag for his first Nextel Cup victory on a short track.

Both drivers could have spun Busch to get past him, and the 21-year-old appreciated the veterans for racing him clean.

"Without Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton behind me, I never would have won this race," Busch said.

Burton didn't regret it.

"I could have used the bumper to move him out of the way and win the race, but I didn't want to," Burton said. "I can lay in bed tonight and wonder, 'What if?' But that's what I chose to do. If you can't pass him without knocking him out of the way, do the best you can. He's driven me clean, and that's what I did with him."

Gordon, the polesitter, wound up third and was thrilled with the effort after struggling for most of the race.

"That's an awesome win for him," Gordon said. "I wanted to race with him. I got a run on the inside and I knew Burton was going to get a run on the outside and I knew I was in trouble, so I just tried to hold onto third."

Busch's win was the third straight for Hendrick Motorsports -- Jimmie Johnson won the past two Cup events -- and was the 200th overall win for car owner Rick Hendrick. It also was the 600th for manufacturer Chevrolet, which introduced the Impala SS this weekend to coincide with NASCAR's debut of the Car of Tomorrow.

The COT spent seven years in development as NASCAR tried to build a uniform car that would cut costs, improve safety and even the competition. It will be used in 16 races this season as NASCAR phases it in through the 2009 season.

It's introduction had teams fretting for months over performance and the many unknowns the COT created.

But when the race finally began, everything seemed pretty normal. Except for the design of the cars, which have a front splitter and a detachable rear wing, nothing appeared out of the ordinary.

And the worst fears -- that the track would be littered with parts and pieces everytime one of them wrecked -- never developed.

"From the tower, I thought it was a good race," NASCAR competition director Robin Pemberton said. "I think you saw there were more competitors up front who had been there in recent history, or teams that aren't used to running in the top 10 or 15.

"There were people concerned with the splitter hitting the race track and all kinds of nightmarish things, you saw there were no problems with that. We were pleased."

But the fifth-place car of Greg Biffle was too low in inspection, and Pemberton said NASCAR would take the car back to North Carolina to inspect. Busch's winning car also is being taken as NASCAR will seize several vehicles after each COT race to inspect them.

Busch and Gustafson weren't pleased that the car was being taken, but Pemberton said it would be back in their possession with plenty of time to prepare for next week's race at Martinsville Speedway.

The drivers, meanwhile, said it's too early to pass judgment on the COT. Martinsville is another short track, and the COT gets its first true test next month in Phoenix.

"If the car is safer and races better, then I am all for it," Gordon said. "But we can't answer that question this weekend."

Kevin Harvick was fourth, followed by Biffle, Jeff Green and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Clint Bowyer finished eighth and Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears rounded out the top 10.

Gordon took over the points lead as Mark Martin, who came into the race on top, skipped the event and turned his keys over to rookie Regan Smith.

Smith finished 25th and Martin dropped to eighth in the standings -- 162 back. Gordon leads Burton by three points.

As expected, Juan Pablo Montoya struggled at his first short track, finishing 32nd after an early spin dropped him several laps down. But he still considered the day a success.

"We got the car home and scored some more points and just go on to the next one," he said. "It was pretty easy, to be honest."

A.J. Allmendinger, the former Champ Car star, also struggled. He was 40th in his Nextel Cup debut.

"You know, I used to think Champ Car was tough to drive," Allmendinger said. "But do 500 laps around this place. That's a lot of work."

The race initially belonged to Tony Stewart, who pulled away to a huge lead during the 257 laps he was out front. But his Chevrolet lost power during a caution with 211 laps to go, and he was livid as he pulled into the pits.

He bemoaned his bad luck in an expletive-laden rant as his Joe Gibbs Racing team worked under the hood of his car. He returned to the track 23 laps down.

Kasey Kahne, who ran in the top five for the first half of the race, spun out moments before Stewart went out to take himself out of the competition.

With the two best cars out of the running, the race opened up for everyone else. Busch and Hamlin traded the lead several times until traffic allowed Busch to get by him for good.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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