CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A cascade of boos rained down on Kyle Busch following his surprise win at Bristol Motor Speedway, a moment that reminded him of the icy reception the late Dale Earnhardt received after a controversial 1999 win at the track.
But this wasn’t even close to that. Earnhardt wrecked leader Terry Labonte out of his way and shrugged it off: “I didn’t mean to turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage.”
Busch had done nothing of the sort. He was comfortably in third on the final lap of Sunday night’s race at dirt-covered Bristol. It was Chase Briscoe who spun into leader Tyler Reddick, and all Busch did was slip through the smoke for the 60th victory of his Cup Series career.
With the checkered flag in his hand, Busch laughed at the crowd reaction: “I mean, man, I feel like Dale Earnhardt Sr. right now. This is awesome. I didn’t do anything.”
What the crowd didn’t realize is that Busch’s ninth career Cup win at Bristol had just earned him a spot in NASCAR’s record books. The victory tied Busch with Hall of Famer Richard Petty with at least one win in 18 consecutive seasons.
“To me, it’s a long time, 18 years,” he said. “The biggest thing to me is just having that opportunity and being thankful for my chances with Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Busch thanked longtime sponsors M&M’s and Interstate Batteries, as well as the leadership at JGR beginning with Hall of Fame team owner Joe Gibbs for “having my back over this long a time, keeping me in the seat.”
Busch ranks ninth on the all-time wins list, but the Bristol win moved him 17 victories away from the Earnhardt, the late seven-time champion and member of the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class alongside Petty. Kevin Harvick, with 58 career Cup victories, is closest to Busch among active drivers; Busch, a two-time Cup champion, is the only active driver with multiple titles.
His journey started first with Jack Roush, who had older brother Kurt Busch under contract, and Kurt swore the driver seven years his junior was going to be better than him. Roush gave Kyle Busch some Truck Series starts when he was 16, but by the time he turned 18 and was approved to race at higher levels, he’d been snagged by Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch won with Hendrick but he was immature and, like his big brother, rather temperamental. He lasted just three seasons before Rick Hendrick cut him loose to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gibbs grabbed the 22-year-old ahead of the 2008 season and Busch has undoubtedly put together a Hall of Fame career. He has 223 victories across NASCAR’s three national series and “retired” from Xfinity Series racing at the end of last season when he crossed the 100-win threshold with 102.
He still races the five Truck Series events NASCAR permits for his Kyle Busch Motorsports team, though he is winless through his first three starts this season.
Now 36 and awaiting the birth of his second child — Busch and wife, Samantha, have publicly struggled with infertility and are expecting their first daughter via a surrogate — Busch’s focus is on winning more Cup titles.
He knows he backed into the Bristol win, his first in a season that has six top-10 finishes through nine races. He doesn’t believe the No. 18 Toyota team is where it needs to be to contend for the title just yet.
“We got a lot of work to do to win more races and be in contention each and every week,” Busch said. “I feel like I’m in the prime of my career and I would love to be running up front and dominating and winning races and contending for championships. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Next up is Talladega Superspeedway, where Busch has just one victory, in 2008. He’s not counting on past experience in what should be a hectic race with NASCAR’s new Next Gen racecar.
“It’s such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from,” Busch said. “You’ve just got to do what you can in order to let these races kind of fall into place, and sometimes it’s just worth taking the finish that’s coming to you and moving on and going to the next one.”
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports