Kyle Busch ends 24-race Nationwide winless streak
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Busch spun his wheels at the start/finish line for a few extra rotations, filling the track and grandstand with a fog of white smoke.
After waiting so long to win on the Nationwide Series again, it felt like the first time and he was going to enjoy it.
Overcoming a mid-race gaffe on pit road with a dominating performance, Busch led 142 laps at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday to end a 24-race Nationwide winless streak.
"It was a phenomenal day for us to get back to Victory Lane, feel the taste of it again," said Busch, whose last Nationwide win was Sept. 9, 2011 at Richmond. "I was almost nervous, feeling like it was my first win even though it was, I think, No. 52 in the series. It's nice to be back."
Busch had a rough 2012 by his own high standards, finishing 13th in the Sprint Cup standings with just one victory despite leading the second-most laps. He also failed to win in 22 Nationwide races for his own team and came up empty in three trucks races.
Busch signed a deal to stay with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 18 Sprint Cup car this season and agreed to race for the team on the Nationwide circuit.
He bounced back from a rough start at Daytona in the season opener by earning the pole at Phoenix and was clearly the fastest car all day during the 200-lap race around the mile oval.
Despite a penalty for entering pit road too fast, Busch eclipsed 11,000 career laps during the race and picked up his 52nd Nationwide victory, extending his own record. He's won seven times at Phoenix, including five in the Nationwide Series.
It also was Toyota's 75th Nationwide victory, 41 of those coming with Busch at the wheel.
"He's just gifted behind the wheel, so we're excited about that," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "Cup, Nationwide, truck, whatever he races, he's got a gift."
Brad Keselowski finished second and Justin Allgaier overcame body damage on his car from an early wreck to finish third. Trevor Bayne finished fourth, followed by Elliott Sadler.
Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers each led laps, but none of them had a shot at keeping up with Busch.
"It was pretty phenomenal how fast his car was and what he was able to do with it," Keselowski said of Busch.
The Nationwide Series got off to an awful start at Daytona last week, when Tony Stewart's season-opening win was marred by a 12-car crash on the final lap that left at least two dozen fans injured.
The wreck happened as the cars came around for the checkered flag and leader Regan Smith tried to block Keselowski. That triggered a chain reaction that piled up cars and sent rookie Kyle Larson's car airborne into the fence, shearing it into pieces that flew into the grandstand.
Two injured fans remain in the hospital.
The Phoenix race had a crash involving six cars on the fourth lap and 38 laps were under caution during the race on the slick track, but no one was injured.
"It was fun out there, slipping and sliding all over the place," Allgaier said.
Busch led the first 40 laps, but was sent to the back of the pack — to 23rd — for entering pit road too fast during a caution. He also overshot his pit stall, thinking it was the last one instead of the one before, but didn't seem bothered once he got back on the track.
"Oh, well, let's make a race of it," he said through the radio. "Let's go get it."
He did, ripping through the field, up to fifth within a few of laps off the restart, past Kenseth for the lead not long after that.
Busch finished 32nd in Daytona due to engine trouble after leading 22 laps, but had no problems down the stretch in the desert.
He dropped to fifth with about 50 laps left when he went into the pits, but was quickly back out front. He wasn't challenged again, finishing nearly 2 seconds ahead of Keselowski at the checkered flag before his smoky celebration that took a while to get going.
"I was a little rusty at the start and I needed help on it, said let me rethink," Busch said. "I went over and got my checkered flag, and it all looked good at the end."
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who won his second Daytona 500 last week, finished 12th in his first Nationwide race since 2011.