CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A cascade of boos rained down on Kyle Busch after his surprise win this week at Bristol Motor Speedway, a moment that reminded him of the icy reception Dale Earnhardt received after a controversial 1999 win at the same Tennessee short track.
When it came to what triggered the crowd's reaction, though, the situations weren't even close. Earnhardt wrecked race leader Terry Labonte out of his way and shrugged it off: "I didn't mean to turn him around, I meant to rattle his cage."
Busch had done nothing of the sort. He was comfortably in third on the final lap of Sunday night's race on the temporary dirt surface at the 0.533-mile oval. It was Chase Briscoe who spun into leader Tyler Reddick, and all Busch did was slip through the smoke for the 60th victory of his Cup Series career.
With the checkered flag in hand, Busch laughed at the crowd's response: "I mean, man, I feel like Dale Earnhardt Sr. right now. This is awesome. I didn't do anything."
What the crowd probably didn't realize is that Busch's ninth career Cup Series win at Bristol had just earned him a spot in NASCAR's record books. The victory tied Busch with seven-time series champion Richard Petty with at least one win in 18 consecutive seasons.
"To me, it's a long time, 18 years," said Busch, who turns 37 next month. "The biggest thing to me is just having that opportunity and being thankful for my chances with Joe Gibbs Racing."
He thanked longtime sponsors Interstate Batteries and M&M's, as well as the leadership at JGR — beginning with team owner Joe Gibbs, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, for "having my back over this long a time, keeping me in the seat."
Busch ranks ninth on the all-time wins list in Cup Series competition, and the Bristol win moved him 17 victories away from passing the late Earnhardt — who along with Petty was a member of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010 — to take over eighth place. Kevin Harvick, who ranks 10th with 58 career victories, is closest to Busch among active drivers.
A two-time Cup Series champion, Busch is the only active driver with multiple titles on NASCAR's top circuit since the retirement of Jimmie Johnson after the 2020 season. Johnson, now competing in the open-wheel IndyCar Series, tied Earnhardt and Petty when he won his seventh title in 2016.
Busch's journey started with Jack Roush, who had Kyle's older brother Kurt Busch under contract, and Kurt swore the driver seven years his junior was going to be better than him. Roush gave Kyle some starts on NASCAR's third-tier Truck Series when he was 16, but by the time he turned 18 and was approved to race at higher levels, he'd been snagged by Hendrick Motorsports.
Busch won with Hendrick, but he was immature and, like his big brother, rather temperamental. He lasted just three seasons before team owner Rick Hendrick cut him loose to sign Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Gibbs grabbed the 22-year-old ahead of the 2008 season, and Busch has undoubtedly put together a career worthy of the Hall of Fame, including his Cup Series championship seasons in 2015 and 2019. He holds the record with 223 victories across NASCAR's three national series and said he "retired" from Xfinity Series racing at the end of last season when he crossed the 100-win threshold with 102.
NASCAR permits Cup Series drivers to enter up to five Truck Series events each season, and Busch is still doing that with his Kyle Busch Motorsports team, though he is winless through his first three starts this year. He has 61 career wins on that circuit, but his focus now is on winning another Cup Series championship.
He knows he backed into the Bristol win, his first in a season with six top-10 finishes through nine races. He doesn't believe the No. 18 Toyota team is where it needs to be to contend for the title just yet.
"We've got a lot of work to do to win more races and be in contention each and every week," Busch said. "I feel like I'm in the prime of my career, and I would love to be running up front and dominating and winning races and contending for championships. That's our ultimate goal."
Next up is Talladega Superspeedway, where Busch has just one victory, in 2008. He's not counting on past experience in what should be a hectic race Sunday in Alabama, especially with NASCAR's new Next Gen car taking to the unpredictable 2.66-mile tri-oval for the first time.
"It's such a crapshoot there in the last 20, 30 or 40 laps that you never really know who is going to win, what's going to happen and where the wreck is going to come from," Busch said. "You've just got to do what you can in order to let these races kind of fall into place, and sometimes it's just worth taking the finish that's coming to you and moving on and going to the next one."