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.”