CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Chase Austin caught a flash of blue and orange out of the corner of his eye right before he drove into the side of the race car.
He wasn't sure whom he had hit until he heard the crowd roar with delight.
He'd just wrecked Kyle Busch. While Busch was leading the race.
It was a disastrous moment for the fledgling 19-year-old NASCAR driver, who was running in just his fourth Nationwide Series race when he wrecked Busch at Bristol Motor Speedway last Friday night.
Busch had just passed Kevin Harvick for the lead when Austin had a tire issue up ahead. As Busch barreled through the turn and weaved down low to pass the lapped car, the tire problem caused Austin to inexplicably turn left and directly into Busch.
The accident just 51 laps into the race took Busch out of contention, and Austin braced for the tongue-lashing that was sure to follow.
Instead, Busch was stunningly gracious in his post-accident interviews, and resisted the urge to blast the inexperienced Austin on national TV.
"I think that was the biggest shock of the whole night," Austin said five days after the accident he hopes won't come to define his career.
"It was this whole series of events where I saw (his car logo) and thought 'That's not good.' Then I heard the fans screaming, knew it was him. ... He could have really said some nasty stuff, but he didn't. I am not sure why. That's the question I've been wanting to ask him."
He wasn't alone.
Busch has an extremely low tolerance for those he believes got in the way of a victory, and he typically doesn't hesitate to gripe about others' on-track gaffes. Even when he's the one in the wrong, he can find fault in his rivals and publicly disparage their driving.
But he hesitated with Austin, in part because he didn't think it would do the young driver any good.
"He's young, trying to learn. Inexperienced. It's not worth it to blast a young guy coming in trying to learn," Busch said. "I don't tend to cut the experienced guys much slack, you know, because we all should know better. But Chase, he thought he was doing the right thing. He's coming from late models, where ... if you have a problem, you get down out of the way, put your hand out the window. Everybody knows that.
"Here, when you're going so fast, 3,400-pound stock cars, you just got to stay up against the wall. Hopefully he's learned that, and next time we won't have that scenario."
Austin is just hoping there is a next time.
Just five years into the business and his NASCAR career has been one disappointment after another. Signed by Hendrick Motorsports to a driver development program when he was 14, he and his family relocated from Eudora, Kan., to pursue NASCAR racing full-time.
But Hendrick's development program ended after its two leaders, general manager Jeff Turner and Hendrick's son, Ricky, were among 10 people killed when an HMS plane crashed on its way to a 2004 race in Martinsville, Va.
Austin eventually landed a new deal with Rusty Wallace Racing in 2007, but he said a sponsorship issue ended that arrangement in early 2008 before he ever made a NASCAR start.
Now he's just piecing together any driving he can, and stays busy working for the trucking company his family started in Mooresville, N.C., when Austin's opportunities began to slow.
"There's been some disappointments, but also some highlights," Austin admitted.
The highlights have been hard to come by this year, as Bristol was just the sixth time he's raced in 2009, and that includes a non-NASCAR dirt modified event. He wasn't even supposed to be at Bristol, but got a call the night before with a last-minute offer to drive for SK Motorsports.
He left North Carolina at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, his father manning the wheel for the drive so Austin could get some sleep. He had a two-hour practice shortly after he arrived at the track, and the seat in the car wasn't properly mounted for his frame.
"Jason White was scheduled to drive the car, and he's about four inches shorter than me," Austin said. "But because I'm taking races as I can get them, a lot of things are last-minute and I jumped at the chance to get in the car. But when I did, my knees were about an inch away from the dashboard."