The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota knows he’s the favorite anytime he straps into a race car at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It’s one thing to be the man to beat, but another to back it up as he did in last year’s Food City 500. Busch has seven Monster Energy Cup Series wins at the high-banked short track and 53 career Cup wins overall, one behind Lee Petty for 10th place on NASCAR’s all-time win list.
“It means a lot to come to Bristol, a place where everybody expects you to do so well, expects you to win, that we're able to get one,” Busch said after last year’s win. “I wasn't sure there late in the going with 50 (laps) to go with the vibrations and everything that I was feeling that I was going to be able to have a shot. I wasn't sure if we were going to go green the rest of the way or what was going to happen.”
Circumstances worked out for Busch and then it was the dogged determination the 2015 NASCAR champion is known for that gave him the opportunity to catch leader Kyle Larson. He restarted on the slower inside lane and got into the rubber marbles as Larson first drove away.
“I got down into some of those marbles, and then when Larson launched and took off, I was just spinning the tires,” said Busch, who owns a track-record 21 victories at Bristol. “I struggled really bad on the restart. I thought that's where I lost it.
“I just put my head down and tried to get back going, just tried to chase those guys back down and do what I could to get there. Larson looked loose. It looked like he was kind of battling it there for a little bit. The 17 (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) got to him first, and then I got to the 17 and was able to get by him and then get back up and catch Larson again.”
Once behind Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet, Busch executed the classic bump-and-run to move Larson out of the way and take the lead. He got enough of a margin where Larson wasn’t able to retaliate. In a move that has made him a villain to many, but a hero to others, there wasn’t any hesitation by Busch to use the front bumper.
“When it comes down to the end, it's crunch time, you've got to go,” Busch said. “I wasn't sure if I made my move too soon. But our car was fast enough that Larson never had a shot to get back to us to repay the favor. It was a pretty good race — I thought it was pretty fun.”
The fans did as well, ranking it as one of the best races of the 2018 season.
Recently, as he passed the 200-win milestone for NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity and Trucks), Busch was asked about the fans’ reaction to him. He pointed to drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson being booed by the fans.
While there is still a large chorus of boos during driver introductions, Busch has slowly noticed a change in the fans’ reaction.
“I feel like my fan base has been picking up over the years,” he said. “I turned off plenty in the early years. You’re never going to change those minds, which is fine.
“There’s certainly some turning the corner a little bit as seeing more of who I am today. Overall, I think winning helps that. I have to give a shout out to Rowdy Nation fans that have been with me since the beginning. Those are the core group that I am certainly very appreciative of, that are very passionate about me.”