Busch a threat to NASCAR champ Johnson

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:02 PM ET

If it wasn’t clear prior to his win Saturday in the Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway, it is now — Kyle Busch is the No. 1 driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing garage.

Busch dominated his teammate Denny Hamlin to win in the No. 18 Toyota and at the same time sent a message to both Gibbs and the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup garage: He is fast becoming the odds-on favourite to replace Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup champion.

It is not only that he has already racked up two victories in the first nine races, it is the way he has done so.

At Richmond Busch took on Hamlin and the No. 11 JGR team — who had come into the race as nearly everyone’s choice to win — and beat him down in a classic duel to the checkered flag, much the same way he did to Carl Edwards at Bristol a month ago.

Busch and Hamlin had a pair of victories each in the past four RIR Cup events, with Hamlin coming off a win on Friday in the NASCAR Nationwide series.

Busch has never been one to downplay his own accomplishments — something that has not endeared him to NASCAR faithful — and he said as much following his win over Hamlin at Richmond.

“I’ve been the dominant force in the spring (at RIR), he’s been the dominant force whether it’s spring or fall,” he said. “When you’re able to beat guys that are always good at a particular racetrack, it seems to bode well for you.”

That is certainly true. But While Busch’s win came after a tough battle with the No. 11 Toyota over the final couple of laps, he set it up with his move on the final restart when he had Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in front of him.

With Busch in his rear-view mirror Earnhardt made a fatal error by spinning his tires, and that was all the No. 18 needed to get to the front.

“I think the 88 spun his tires, started making his way to the bottom of the track a little bit,” Busch said afterwards. “He was trying to make his way to the bottom. I think somebody stuck his nose in there and made it three-wide.

“I’m going to have to leave some room so I don’t get hit. Put it up the top, tried to get a good run off of turn two so I could get ahead of those guys.

Once you commit yourself to where you’re going, you pretty much got to stick with your gut, do what you got to do to get through there.”

When Busch went to Gibbs after the 2008 season, he was a definite second banana to Tony Stewart — a two-time Cup champion.

And when Stewart left the team to start his own outfit in 2010, Hamlin assumed the leadership role.

After Saturday Busch is now the guy Gibbs is looking to for it next championship run.

FINISH LINES

The biggest loser in Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race? Hands down it was Juan Pablo Montoya for gutlessly scampering away from a post-race confrontation with Ryan Newman. If Montoya thinks he’s a tough guy for his pay-back hit on Newman during the race he lost that bit of bravado by not sticking around after the race. Montoya hopped on his team’s golf cart to avoid a face-to-face with Newman. ... Kasey Kahne showed some guts by returning to the race track after a knee surgery last week to earn his best finish of the ear — third at Richmond. It was his first top five in the No. 4 Red Bull Racing Toyota Camry. ... Robert Wickens, of Toronto, got his first victory of the 2011 Formula Renault 3.5 Series season Saturday and was second on Sunday to Carlin Racing teammate Jean-Eric Vergne. ... And Montreal’s Bruno Spengler opened the DTM season with a win from the pole position at Hockenheim.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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