AP Photo/Glenn Smith
Sunday, March 8, 2009 | 9:36 p.m.
HAMPTON, Ga. — Las Vegas native Kurt Busch grabbed the checkered flag, shifted his car into reverse and headed off on a unique victory lap.
Too bad for everyone else he didn't drive that way during the race. It's probably the only way he could have lost.
Busch, a former NASCAR Cup champion who's been overshadowed lately by his kid brother Kyle, drove to a dominating victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Thirty-year-old Kurt led 234 of 330 laps in the Kobalt Tools 500, surviving a couple of scrapes with the wall and a late caution to pull away for a 0.332-second victory over Jeff Gordon.
It really wasn't that close.
"I've got to thank my guys," Busch said in Victory Lane. "This car was unbelievable. I guess good things come to those who wait."
How dominating was Busch? He led more laps in one afternoon than he did all of last season (164), when his only victory came in a rain-shortened race at Loudon, N.H.
"I just drove (against) the track, not the competition," Busch said. "We had strong pit stops, a great-handling car, a strong motor and a great assistant spotter."
That would be team owner Roger Penske, who flew in for the day and helped keep an eye on things from above the main stands.
"We're back in business," Penske said. "His brother is a great driver, but there's not many people out there who can hold a candle to Kurt."
Last year, Busch's lone win was due more to strategy than skill. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Kyle became a full-blown star, winning a series-best eight races before struggling in the championship playoff, his undeniable talent earning him a mention as a possible candidate to drive for an American-based Formula One team that's trying to get off the ground.
Then, last weekend in the Busch family's hometown of Las Vegas, Kyle drove from the back of the field to victory while Kurt finished a disappointing 23rd after starting on the outside of the front row. Even so, Kurt kept insisting he wasn't jealous of his kid brother's success, even stopping by Victory Lane to give Kyle a big hug.
Sunday was Kurt's time to shine.
"I needed to hold up my end of the bargain with Kyle winning all the time," Kurt said. "The kid has been dominant."
Kyle pulled up beside his big brother after the race and gave him a congratulatory wave. The kid finished 18th, three laps behind.
The older Busch really made his mark on the victory lap, which was apparently dreamed up over a few beers with his buddies. It was his own take on the "Polish Victory Lap" conceived by the late Cup champion Alan Kulwicki, who would drive the wrong way around the track after a win — but facing forward.
Busch went the right direction, but had to steer out of his rearview mirror.
"When you put the car in reverse like that, it relaxes," he explained. "It's like cooling down a horse after a good Kentucky Derby run."
Now, he's just got to come up with a name. His friends suggested "The Donkey." Busch came up with the "Don Johnson" after spinning his No. 2 Dodge back around to pull into Victory Lane the right way, saying it reminded him of a move that might have been attempted in the actor's old "Miami Vice" television series.
"We had a good hot rod today," Busch said. "Maybe I should name the reverse victory lap the 'Hot Rod.'"
Whatever the name, Busch's performance left Gordon still in search of his first win since 2007. But the four-time Sprint Cup champion remained on top of the standings after another strong run.
"We're getting close," Gordon said after his second runner-up finish of the season. "We're going to keep knocking on the door until we get to Victory Lane."
With four laps to go, Robby Gordon shredded a tire to bring out the final caution flag of the race. Carl Edwards gambled as all the leaders ducked into the pits, changing only two tires so he got back on the track first.
Busch and Jeff Gordon both went with four new tires, coming out second and third behind Edwards. But the leader had no chance of holding off Busch on the two-lap finish, watching him blow by on the backstretch and cruise to his 19th career victory. Gordon also got by Edwards, who settled for third.
"That was the hand we were dealt," Edwards said. "I just wish we had four tires. Kurt did a good job. He was the fastest car all day."
Mark Martin was the fastest in qualifying, becoming the second-oldest driver in Cup history to start from the pole. But it was another rough day for the 50-year-old after blowing engines the two previous weeks. He apparently cut a tire, smashed the wall and finished 31st, 14 laps down.
Martin returned to full-time racing this season with Hendrick Motorsports in hopes of contending for his first Cup championship. But he's off to a terrible start with one of NASCAR's strongest teams, leaving Atlanta 34th in the standings.
There were huge sections of empty seats along the front stretch of the track south of Atlanta, which was no more than two-thirds filled on a warm, sunny day. Clearly, the economy is taking its toll on NASCAR's fan base.
"I'm kind of baffled by it," Gordon said.
The lack of grip in the tires led to a yawner of a race for the most part. The drivers looked as though they were more concerned with avoiding crashes than dueling each other, the 43-car field quickly spreading out all over the high-banked track. At one point, there were only nine cars on the lead lap and just 12 were there at the end.
"It reminds me of Darlington," Busch said, referring to the track that's been dubbed "too tough to tame."
"This place just chews you up and spits you out."
Until the final shootout, the most dramatic moment came on the 67th lap when a tire rolled away from Marcus Ambrose's pit box, and gas man Jimmy Watts took off after it. He ran halfway onto the grass in the quad-oval to retrieve it, a dangerous move that prompted NASCAR officials to throw a yellow flag and toss Watts out of the pits for the rest of the race.
Starting on the outside of the front row, Busch quickly raced to the front and stayed there most of the race, stretching his lead to more than 10 seconds during his most dominating run.
Busch, who found his best line along the top of the track, twice scraped the outside wall, but even that didn't slow his car, just left it in need of a paint job.
He can afford one now.