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NASCAR's newest villain wins race, loses more respect

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2003

BRISTOL, Tenn. Kurt Busch hardly looked like a kid interested in celebrating. Beaten and broken, his head hung low and he had a weary look on his face, not even another win at Bristol could lift his spirits.

Busch scored his fourth victory of the season Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, an accomplishment that should have sent him partying into the early morning hours.

Instead, a move he used on Sterling Marlin en route to the win was piled onto a growing list of black marks that have made the 25-year-old Busch NASCAR's newest villain.

''It seems like that's the direction it's been taking,'' he said of his new role.

Busch was punched in the face by Jimmy Spencer last week as he sat inside his race car in Michigan. He got a bloody nose and a chipped tooth from the bopping, and unmeasurable damage to his reputation for his role in it.

He didn't help matters when he arrived in Bristol with a defiant attitude, shrugging off the criticism from his fellow competitors and dishing out some of his own complaints over the way he'd been portrayed in the media.

''I'll take about five questions, so make them good,'' he snapped at a Friday news conference his Roush Racing team planned for him.

So as the fans booed his every move, and the search for a friendly face in the garage area became an increasingly difficult task, Busch did his best to focus on Bristol.

After all, couldn't he wipe away all his troubles with a win?

It just wasn't that simple.

As Saturday wore on, things only got worse.

In-car audio tapes from last week at Michigan turned up and revealed Busch egging Spencer on, perhaps provoking the punch in the face.

Then there was contact with Marlin, a strong contender to win the race. But Marlin's night was ruined when Busch spun him out as he tried to pass him for second place.

Busch immediately knew that the aggressive move on Marlin would spoil his night because of the growing resentment against him. So he spent a large portion of the post-race time apologizing.

Runner-up Kevin Harvick, meanwhile, was spending his time calling Busch names and criticizing the rival driver.

''He's a cocky, arrogant, punk,'' Harvick said. ''He just has a really, really bad attitude. But he can wheel a race car.''

But Busch was too broken down to respond. A week ago, he might have chalked the Marlin contact up as a racing incident and suggested Marlin ''get over it.''

And he might have answered Harvick's verbal assault with one of his own.

But this time, Busch took the high road.

''If he feels that way, that's fine. You just have to consider the source,'' Busch said.

Then he vowed to be a different man.

''You're going to see a less colorful Kurt on the radio,'' he said. ''You're going to see a less colorful Kurt in the media center and anytime that I have any type of situation on the race track, unless I know outright that I am wrong.''

While Busch was beating himself up, his teammate Matt Kenseth was moving closer to the Winston Cup title.

The race had a NASCAR-tying record 20 cautions, and as usual, Kenseth managed to avoid almost all of them and roll to a fourth-place finish that widened his lead in the standings to 351 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And he did it while making an honest effort to win the race, not just rack up points.

''I think it would be hard, if I were a critic, to say we're points racing,'' Kenseth said.

Kenseth could have finished third, but rookie Jamie McMurray admitted blocking him on the final lap to hold his position.

''If he wasn't the points leader I wouldn't have blocked him,'' McMurray said. ''He had more to lose than he did to gain by that one spot.''



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