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Busch wins battle of hungry drivers

Winston Cup sophomore gets second win by holding off Johnny Benson, who has never won.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2002

Winston Cup sophomore gets second win by holding off Johnny Benson, who has never won.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Kurt Busch paused repeatedly, trying to catch his breath and recover from a typically grueling afternoon on a short track.

But Busch also had a victory to celebrate, his second career victory, having held off a charge by Johnny Benson over the last few laps of Sunday's Martinsville 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and that made talking about his day easy.

"Nobody can be hungrier than I am," said the 24-year-old Busch, who joined Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Jeff Gordon as the only drivers in Winston Cup history to win more than one race before turning 25. "This is sweet. This is racing with the best of the best. It was a great race, a great ride for us."

And it was harrowing at the end.

Busch, in his second full year as a Winston Cup driver, seemed in control when he beat the field out of the pits after a 15.3-second pit stop with 91 laps to go. A breakaway on a restart with 70 left seemed to certify that he would win.

But Benson, making his 224th career start and with possibly his best chance at his first Winston Cup series victory, made it close.

Busch won by 0.46 seconds.

"I know how hungry he is," Busch said. "But we're starving too."

The victory, Busch's second this year, was the seventh for Roush Racing and a bonus for owner Jack Roush in a remarkable year.

"These are all extra days for me," said Roush, who was pulled unconscious from a lake after crashing his small plane in Alabama in April. "I may have taken myself a little too serious for a while. I'm much more relaxed than I was and just going with it and having a good time."

Busch, who started 36th, took the lead for the first time on the 389th of 500 laps and lost it for only one the rest of the way. He ran the last 10 with Benson on his bumper, doing anything he could to pass.

"I bumped him once or twice," said Benson, a former Roush driver. "I didn't want to spin the guy out. I just wanted to get him out of shape, but when I did I just didn't have quite enough to get underneath him."

And Busch had enough to hang on.

"(Crew chief) Jimmy Fennig radioed and said, '10 to go,' and things were great. Things were running smooth and we were passing lapped cars," Busch said.

"Then I looked up and Johnny B. was there. It ran through my mind to hold my line to make sure he couldn't get underneath us or around us. We did make it a little wide, but that's what you do at a short track when it comes down to who's going to win and who's going to finish second."

Busch, driving a Ford, won from deeper in the field than anyone at the .526-mile track, the series' oldest and shortest. The best was Lee Petty, who won from 24th in 1959.

The race tightened the points chase with four races remaining. Leader Tony Stewart rallied to finish 11th after staring 31st, but his margin over No. 2 Jimmie Johnson closed from 97 points to 82. Mark Martin remained third, losing a point to be 123 back.

"We were pretty competitive over the last half of the race," said Martin, 10th after starting 20th. "Long runs were our friend."

Virginia native Ricky Rudd was third in his Ford, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Chevrolet and Virginian Ward Burton's Dodge.

The next five were Johnson, defending race champion Ricky Craven, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Martin.

The race looked like an easy victory for Busch when he pulled away from Craven on a restart with 70 to go and built a wide lead.

But Benson got by Craven on the 445th and took advantage of lapped traffic to slowly reel in Busch, setting up the exciting finish.

Several times over the last few laps, Busch's car fishtailed out of the second turn, creating openings that Benson tried -- and failed -- to fill.

"I think if I was in front of him, we'd have been a little bit better," Benson said. "But with him in front, he was pretty good too."

Mike Bliss, driving Chip Ganassi's Dodge after rookie Jamie McMurray won in it at Charlotte Oct. 13, finished 14th. McMurray was unable to drive because he had a Busch race at Memphis.

The race was another tough one for Gordon. The four-time series champion ran up front early, then cut a tire at about the midpoint, had a hard time making it to pit road and fell several laps down. He finished 36th two races after being 42nd at Talladega.

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