Buried deep in the Sprint Cup points standings and with no real hope of making the Chase, Kurt Busch had nothing to lose. Each time through the hairpin turn at the south end of the road course at Sonoma, and each time in the dogleg on the way back up the hill, the red No. 51 car got close enough to the leader that Busch was able to peek out and think about making the pass. Again and again, Clint Bowyer slammed the door. As the laps wound down and Busch neared the end of the best chance he might have to win a race this season, it was natural to wonder whether desperation would take hold.
Except it never did. Eventually Busch went in a little too hard, banging off a tire barrier that's now bolted to the ground in the hairpin, and breaking a suspension piece in his vehicle's rear end as a result. Bowyer sped away to his first victory with Michael Waltrip Racing. Busch settled for third place Sunday, content with the good finish his Phoenix Racing crew had worked so hard for, and in the personal satisfaction that he didn't try to win by wrecking the guy in front of him.
"I was very patient with Bowyer," Busch said afterward. "I got to his rear bumper three, four times in Turn 11 and bumped him. No banzai moves here. There's a lot of respect that I was trying to give."
And it showed in the way he raced the leader until his car proved too damaged to hold on to second place. Make no mistake, Bowyer was certainly aware Busch was back there -- the top two cars made contact more than a few times, and the driver in the No. 51 was relentless in his attempts to overtake the leader. But there would be no banzai moves, no takeouts, no bump-and-runs. Had Busch's vehicle been good enough to hang in through the final corner of the final lap, perhaps things might have been different. But it's doubtful. Because though Busch has his demons, it's important to note they're rarely taken out on his fellow competitors. He races people hard, and he also races them clean.
That much gets lost sometime amid all the other baggage -- the pit-road bump of Ryan Newman's car at Darlington, the ensuing fracas and probation, the incident with the reporter at Dover and the suspension NASCAR levied against him the following week. Kurt Busch can be temperamental, he can be hot-headed, he can be difficult. But between the concrete wall and the white line, he seems to operate under a code. He'll be all over you, harassing you, pestering you, forcing you to mirror-drive and curse his existence. But if you're waiting on him to intentionally wreck someone just because he can sometimes be an angry young man -- well, keep waiting.
"It was definitely nerve wracking, but, man, you know, Kurt raced me clean," Bowyer said after the race. "He felt me and roughed me up and let me know he was there. But [he] never did anything to jeopardize either one of us, because that's what happens. You get to driving over your head and you dive-bomb somebody, a lot of times you wheel-hop and you end up wiping yourself out, too. He raced a very smart race."
Kurt Busch is simply too good of a driver to drive in over his head. If anything, Sonoma showed just how calculating he can be, as he took a car that on paper had no business being in contention on a road course and made it a major factor in the event. As he pursued Bowyer, one thought occupied his mind: This guy is a Midwest dirt late model racer, and can't possibly hang in there until the end. "Without a doubt, I thought I could have pressured Bowyer into a mistake," Busch said. "He was there for the taking coming to the white [flag], and I couldn't do it."
By that time Busch had banged off the tire barrier, which he had hit with about eight laps remaining, and was left to get all he could out of a damaged car. But on the kind of road course that in recent years has been a breeding ground for aggression, where repeatedly the last two seasons drivers have tried to make up for shortcomings by leaning on opponents and using eight wheels instead of four, he showed a remarkable degree of restraint. Was that him knowing his limits? Trying to repair his reputation? Taking care of a good car the undermanned and underfunded Phoenix team had put the finishing touches on only at midnight the previous Monday?
Perhaps. But glancing back at his past, it may also just be the way Busch races people -- aggressively, to be certain, but within limits. "I was very considerate of Bowyer," Busch said, "who was going for his first win with his new team."
Now, none of this is to say that Busch hasn't had his share of on-track run-ins. As ferociously as he drives, they come with the territory. Most notably there have been the six (and counting) run-ins with Jimmie Johnson, beginning with a 2009 incident at Sonoma where Busch was spun through the dirt, and continuing to last year's second Richmond race where Johnson went around after Busch locked up his brakes. Although the potential for fireworks still looms anytime Busch and Johnson are in close proximity to one other, this hasn't been the kind of feud that results in cars being flipped over, or NASCAR feeling the need to intervene.
Now, Busch was fined $10,000 by NASCAR in 2002 for admittedly wrecking Robby Gordon in the all-star exhibition to bring out a caution, and in his earlier days he could be somewhat sketchy as a bump-drafter -- as former Roush teammate Greg Biffle will attest. But these days, the accidents Busch is involved in are often the result of him being back in the pack, or him asking more of his unsponsored No. 51 car than the vehicle is prepared to give. Sunday in northern California wine country served as not just a reminder of Busch's immense driving talent, but also his ability to race opponents fiercely yet cleanly at the same time. And afterward, congratulate them in Victory Lane.
"Just to have him come to Victory Lane spoke volumes about his character," Bowyer said. "He's a champion of the sport. You can't lose sight of that. I know there's been a lot of negative around him, but he had a lot of positives today for Kurt Busch. ... They didn't have a sponsor on the car, but for him to be competing for a win in that equipment that has never done that -- that boy can drive. And when you give him the confidence and the direction and sometimes, I guess, the discipline to get the job done, he's certainly capable of it."
Inside the car, even a driver as relentless as Busch seems to understand the concepts of limits and consequences. Now, if he could only apply those same lessons off the track. "If I can get my head on straight here and after the race, then I'm able to race every weekend and go for victories," Busch said after his emotional run at Sonoma. That much remains a work in progress.