Busch seeking perfect finish at Darlington

Kurt Busch never stops hoping for the perfect finish at
Darlington Raceway.

It was 10 years ago that Busch came up an agonizing .002 seconds
shy of victory to Ricky Craven at the track ”Too Tough To Tame.”
Busch said he’s seen replays of the final few laps of that 2003
race several times and each time wishes for a different outcome,
that he noses out Craven in what is Sprint Cup’s closest finish
since it went to electronic timing in 1993.

”To tell the story as many times as I have over the last 10
years, it gets better and better each year,” Busch said Tuesday.
”It just puts a smile on your face.”

Even for Busch, the runner-up.

He’s twice won the pole and has five top 10 finishes in 16 trips
to Darlington. Yet, he’s never gotten closer to the checkered flag
there than those two-thousands of a second. Busch will get his next
chance for a Darlington victory there when the Sprint Cup Series
returns for the Southern 500 on Saturday night.

He is also looking to rebound from another disappointing ending
last week at Talladega Superspeedway. Busch was caught in a late
wreck, his car going airborne before landing on Ryan Newman and
finishing 30th. Busch has seen tape of the accident and says it was
simply the result of fast, tight racing with so many competitors
chasing victory.

”There’s nobody to blame. I can’t even blame NASCAR for it,”
Busch said. ” It’s just when it’s a free-for-all like that at the
end of the race, you have to expect bumping and grinding.”

Busch felt lucky Newman was there for a landing spot,
anticipating a long, series of barrel rolls ”from Talladega to
Georgia,” he said. But Busch walked away unhurt and ready for a
week reliving his close call at Darlington.

Craven had rallied from fourth and drew even with Busch for the
lead with two laps to go. The pair bumped each other throughout and
both appeared headed into the wall during the final moments. Craven
edged in front on the final turn, the two cars grinding into each
other as they slid past the finish line.

While the margin of victory has since been equaled – Jimmie
Johnson defeated Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds at Talladega in 2011
– Busch believes nothing will ever match the show he and Craven put
on at Darlington.

”This day we had two winners it seemed like, and that’s what
gave it such a unique twist at the end,” he said. ”Or maybe I’m
just telling myself that because I keep losing this race by .002 of
a second, and I’m never going to accept that, but it was a great
race.”

And one that helped NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway retain a place
in Sprint Cup racing. The track had been on notice that year that
its crumbling infrastructure and dwindling crowds made it a
candidate for closure.

Instead, the dramatic finish showed drivers, fans and NASCAR
leaders the thrills the egg-shaped oval could produce. Then
Darlington president Andrew Gurtis remembers the excitement in the
late Jim Hunter’s voice as the NASCAR vice president detailed the
finish on the phone to longtime CEO, the late Bill France Jr.

”It went a long way in reminding people what Darlington was all
about,” said Gurtis, now vice president of operations at Daytona
International Speedway.

Darlington made it through NASCAR’s realignment, gaining at
niche on Mother’s Day weekend. Strong crowds the past eight years
have turned around the track’s once uncertain future.

”I’m not nearly bold enough to say that that one race was a
turning point,” Craven said. ”But I am realistic enough to say
that at the end of the day, people buy into a product because they
want value or they want an experience, they want something that
sticks with them.”

Craven said anyone who attended or has seen the Darlington
finish from 2003 won’t ever forget it.

Darlington still provides thrills – many of them coming after
the race. Kevin Harvick confronted Kurt’s brother, Kyle, on the
track driving toward the garage after the 2011 Southern 500. Last
year, it was Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and their teams scuffling
after the race.

There were plenty, including Craven, who expected the fiery Kurt
Busch to come out swinging after the race 10 years ago. Instead,
Busch went to Victory Lane and celebrated with the winning
team.

”I think that day it was just something special and it was two
men that gave everything they were worth,” Busch said. ”If there
was a loser, it was fine, because I gave it everything I had.”

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