Busch drives from the back to win on home track

Published 9:11 pm Sunday, March 1, 2009

LAS VEGAS — Kyle Busch has had plenty of highlights in his short NASCAR career: setting a record as the youngest winner in series history, giving Toyota its first victory and returning Joe Gibbs Racing’s flagship car to prominence.

None of it compared to winning at home.

Busch notched the biggest win of his young career Sunday by driving from the back of the field to win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his hometown track.

Although there are far more hallowed tracks in NASCAR, this 1.5-mile oval in the desert was where “The Wild Thing” most wanted to win. He proved that with an elaborate victory celebration that ended with him on his knees, kissing the finish line.

“I tell you what, this is pretty cool,” Busch said. “I didn’t know exactly what it would mean, but coming to the checkered flag, there were knots in my stomach. It’s bigger than winning the Daytona 500. I said it wasn’t going to be, but it is.”

Busch struggled in his first visit to Vegas, wrecking 11 laps into his Cup debut race and finishing 41st.

He bounced back to compete for the wins the next to seasons, but settled for second- and third-place finishes to then-teammate Jimmie Johnson. His best chance might have been last year, when he returned home leading the points for the first time in his career and won the pole. But he struggled with the handling on his JGR Toyota, and wound up 11th.

This year, he wouldn’t be denied.

Busch came prepared at the start of the weekend, beating big brother Kurt for the pole to put brothers on the front row for the first time since 2000. But an engine change in his Toyota meant he had to drop to the back of the field at the start of the race, and Busch had to power his way through the field over 285 laps.

In a brief address to the crowd before the start of the race, he promised to get to the front.

“I just said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re going to the back so get ready for a show. Here it comes,'” he recalled. “Even if I got up to 20th and then backed it in, it was still going to be a show.”

Busch took the lead with 57 to go, then lost it during a late round of pit stops. Busch was third on a restart with 22 to go, then chased down Jeff Burton and leader Clint Bowyer to move out front again.

“Say goodnight, Gracie,” spotter Jeff Dickerson radioed as Busch moved out to a dominating lead.

But there were two more cautions, and Busch had to hold off the competition over two final restarts for his first victory of the season. It was his first win at Las Vegas in six career Cup Series starts, 13 total spanning NASCAR’s top three series.

“We just had to battle back,” Busch said. “We didn’t have the best car out there, but we had a car we kept on working on. I don’t know where I get credited for winning this thing, whether it’s from the back or from the pole. Either way, we conquered both of them.”

He celebrated with thick burnouts through the grass, then apparently blew his engine again. Enveloped in thick white plumes of smoke, he emerged from the clouds to make his trademark bow to the crowd.

He then collected the checkered flag from NASCAR, and kneeled to kiss the finish line on the track.

“I just had to kiss the ground this place was built on,” he said, recalling every phase of construction.

He was met in Victory Lane by his tearful mother, Gaye, and Kurt Busch, who gave him a hearty hug despite his disappointing 23rd-place finish.

“He said, ‘We watched this place be built and you were the first one to conquer it,'” Busch recalled. “And mom was right there, too. Her face was soaked.”

Kurt Busch remains winless at Las Vegas in nine career Cup starts. But forced to stay in Vegas another night because a winter storm had shut down all air traffic back to North Carolina, he was likely headed to the celebratory party on the Strip.

“We’re partying it up big,” Kyle Busch said. “The plane can’t go home tonight, so it’s going to be one heck of a party in Las Vegas.”

Bowyer finished second and Burton was third, bouncing back from a horrible run last week at California.

David Reutimann, one of the five Toyota drivers who had to change a motor this weekend, finished fourth and was followed by Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon, who missed pit road late in the race and blew his tire on the subsequent trip around the track.

Greg Biffle was seventh and Brian Vickers, another Toyota driver with an engine change, was eighth. Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 10.

Jimmie Johnson, strong all afternoon, wrecked with six laps to go to finish 24th.

Carl Edwards’ motor blew with two laps to go while he was running fourth. He finished 17th.

Matt Kenseth, trying to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the first three races of the season, lost his engine six laps into the race and finished last. In all, Roush Fenway Racing lost three of five motors.