Kurt Busch hopped side to side, stopping at each concrete letter of V-E-G-A-S to slam down his checkered flag and punctuate his first hometown victory in 22 tries.
He looked up at stands vacated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and imagined the reception he could have received. He felt a mix of “emptiness but fullness.”
Later Sunday night, long after his Round of 12 playoff win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR veteran got a helicopter ride, free dinner and “cold beers with my boys.”
“Right now it’s my most special win (of my career),” Busch told Sporting News. “I felt like when I looked through the grandstands, I made eye contact or a connection with the souls of everybody that would have been there rooting for me, whether they were the hometown crowd or family members or volunteer crew members. A lot of people come to Vegas for a good time and a party and they travel from all over. The tourism industry really suffered with no fans at the track. So I was just taking that in, and I was just thankful to win.”
Busch spoke with his wife before his unexpected victory about possibly retiring after 2021. He said he hasn’t revisited the chat following his latest performance but plans to do so soon.
Renewed life as a genuine Cup Series contender could influence the eventual decision of a driver who has only known the grueling push of NASCAR competition.
“For me and my career, I’ve always stayed on the gas,” Busch said. “And I’ve just continued to push. And I love that. I’m in a great position now with a great team right now in 2020.”
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver did not figure to be close to first place for the final lap Sunday, but a caution flag with most of the field pitting and Busch still out sent him ahead of the pack. He held on to claim a result that has major implications for where he might finish in 2020.
He is now assured a spot in the Round of 8 and under far less pressure this weekend at Talladega than he otherwise would have been.
Busch, the 2004 Cup Series champion, hasn’t placed higher than seventh in a NASCAR campaign since 2009, when he finished fourth. He was 31 then. A sixth-or-better placement this year is in reach.
Busch said he wasn’t sure whether strong performances in 2020 and 2021 would increase or decrease his chances of walking away. He’s excited by the changes NASCAR is making to its schedule and packaging, which could factor into his eventual decision as well.
“But we’ll see how it all plays out,” Busch said. “Right now I couldn’t be happier, and I’m just proud of the situation that I’m in with a great team.”
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