DARLINGTON, S.C. - If Saturday night's Dodge 500 at Darlington Raceway had been a popularity contest, Kyle Busch wouldn't have had a prayer.
But what it was was a NASCAR race, and just about every time there has been one of those this season the driver of the No. 18 Toyota has been hard to handle.
Nobody could handle Busch on this evening.
One week after being involved in a late-race incident that knocked fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of a possible Sprint Cup Series victory at Richmond, Busch was booed lustily when he was introduced to the crowd before the race.
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But he ran strong early, then recovered from a missing lug nut just before the midrace point to storm away over the final 100 laps to win for the third time this season.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of all you guys," Busch said as he crossed under the checkered flag more than three seconds ahead of Carl Edwards. Jeff Gordon finished third with Earnhardt Jr. fourth.
Busch climbed from his car and took a bow after doing a burnout on the frontstretch. The fans weren't exactly showering him with cheers then, either, but he loved that, too.
"These guys love the noise the fans make," Busch said, nodding toward his Joe Gibbs Racing team. "Keep it up everybody. ... We need to keep that bull's eye on us, where everybody is shooting at us."
Busch, who just turned 23, became the youngest driver to win at this track, where the Cup series has run since 1950, beating Terry Labonte's record by nine months and eight days. The average speed was 140.350 mph, breaking the record for the fastest 500-mile race ever held here.
"Darlington is one of the hardest places, it always has been and always will be," said Busch, who has now won eight races in Cup, Nationwide and Truck series competition this year. He's also leading the Sprint Cup standings.
"What an awesome win for us. This is pretty cool."
Busch spent much of the first third of the race swapping the lead with pole-winner Greg Biffle, but when a caution on Lap 140 ended a long green-flag run - there hadn't been a yellow since Lap 13 - a missing lug forced Busch back to pit road.
He was 23rd on the restart in a race that seemingly had turned Biffle's way. But on Lap 171, Biffle gave up the lead when he slowed coming down the backstretch, apparently with a flat right-rear tire but with bigger problems lurking under his hood.
That put Martin Truex in the lead, with Jeff Gordon second and Denny Hamlin third, and left Biffle a lap down at least until the rest of the field made green-flag stops. He goit the lead back on Lap 209, but on Lap 234 the No. 16 Ford came to pit road with smoke trailing his No. 16 Ford.
His engine - and his evening - were done.
"I drive my heart out and give 110 percent every week," a dejected Biffle said. "I want everybody else to do the same."
With Biffle out, Busch was moving swiftely back into the picture. He swept into second on Lap 260 and on Lap 270 he caught and passed Gordon to reclaim the top spot.
Debris from one or more cars banging off the wall brought out a yellow and brought the leaders to pit lane.
Gordon beat Busch back onto the track with Dale Earnhardt Jr. third and Carl Edwards fourth for a restart on Lap 285.
Busch got the lead back by the end of that first green-flag lap. Earnhardt Jr. came to second and Edwards passed Gordon, too.
On Lap 288, Busch banged off the wall off Turn 2 but kept right on going. Busch was still leading on Lap 301 when Truex and Hamlin got together coming off Turn 4, sending Hamlin's Toyota spinning.
That brought the leaders to pit road for what figured to be their final stops. Busch won the race off pit road ahead of Edwards, Gordon, David Ragan and Earnhardt Jr. for the restart on Lap 308.
The only questions for Busch from that point on was whether he had enough fuel to finish and whether anybody else would have trouble on this treacherous 1.366-mile track to bring out another yellow and give Busch's would-be challengers any hope.