Rookie Of The Year. Again?

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It isn’t often a driver gets a chance to win rookie-of-the-year honors in two major NASCAR Series in consecutive years. But then, that’s just how things have gone for Kurt Busch recently.

Virtually a no-name prior to the 2000 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season, Busch cruised to the top rookie award in the NCTS and finished second in the overall points standings to Roush Racing teammate Greg Biffle.

That was enough to convince team owner Jack Roush to put Busch in his No. 97 Taurus, which Busch will compete in for the top rookie prize again in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2001.

The ascent to his present position has been a whirlwind ride for the Las Vegas-area native, one that has taken the 22-year-old completely by surprise.

“I don’t know if you can call me an anomaly, because there have been drivers that have moved up through the ranks pretty fast before,” said Busch, who posted four victories in the NCTS last season. “I will say that you don’t see it very often, though. The way this has happened to me is just something that doesn’t happen to many guys.

“I can’t tell you how fortunate I am with the way things have gone for me the past couple of years. Just to be associated with Roush Racing is a blessing, but to have done the things I’ve done and to be able to be in a Winston Cup car with such a tremendous organization this early in my career is incredible. I’ve enjoyed all of the changes in my life the past year. They are all part of learning.”

Should he win the rookie-of-the-year award, it will be his third such trophy in a NASCAR touring series. He was also the top first-year driver in the Featherlite Southwest Series in 1998. He went on to become NASCAR’s youngest touring champion in that series in 1999 before moving on to the NCTS.

No driver has ever won the rookie-of-the-year title in two of the three elite NASCAR series (Winston Cup, Busch and NCTS) in consecutive seasons. That makes Busch’s 2000 campaign that much more interesting to watch.

Busch will compete for the top rookie award against the likes of Evernham Motorsports’ Casey Atwood and PPI Motorsports’ Andy Houston. Many consider Atwood – with three-time Winston Cup champion crew chief and now team owner Ray Evernham behind him – to be the favorite going in.

One of the reasons for that is Busch’s team is still without a primary sponsor heading into the season, which gets started Feb. 18 with the Daytona 500.

“That’s one thing we’ve got going against us, but I’ll tell you, it’s not much of a disadvantage when you’ve the resources we’ve got at Roush Racing,” Busch said. “We’d like to get someone on board and get that behind us, but in the interim, we’re going to be OK. I just have to go out there and do my job because I know I’m going to get good cars to work with.”

One small advantage Busch does have is the experience factor. He ran seven Winston Cup races in 2000, the maximum allowed to a driver if he is to compete as a rookie the following season. Atwood drove three Winston Cup races for Evernham in 2000, and Houston got five Winston Cup starts a year ago.

Those seven races allowed Busch and crew chief Matt Chambers, who also came over from Busch’s NCTS team, a chance to work with their new crew instead of going into the season cold.

“It has been a real learning experience working with so many new people in the past year,” Busch said. “I made friends with the crew members and Matt (Chambers) in the truck series, and now I hope to do the same with the Winston Cup crew. They are the people you work with and spend all of your time with.

“I built some great relationships last year. I was able to communicate a lot with Greg Biffle and we worked well together. (NCTS team manager) Max Jones really took me under his wing and I learned a great deal from him, and of course, Jack (Roush) is like a father figure to me. Since I’ve been in North Carolina, all of my Winston Cup teammates at Roush have accepted me and I’m anxious to work with and learn from them.”

Jeff Burton, the driver of Roush’s No. 99 Citgo Taurus, said he expects Busch to have a bumpy ride early on, but then that’s just the norm for most rookies.

“Kurt’s still got a lot to learn about these Winston Cup cars, but you could see by the way he drove last year that he’s going to get it down pretty quickly,” Burton said. “Matt Kenseth came in last year and stumbled a little bit at times, but he also had a tremendous year and won a race. I’m looking for Kurt to have some success during his rookie year, and we’ll all try to help him as much as we can.”

Kenseth racked up the top rookie award in the Winston Cup Series last season. He won the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and finished 14th in the points standings.

“I’m really looking forward to working with Kurt,” Kenseth said. “He’s got a lot of talent. His crew chief, Matt Chambers, and he are bringing some new ideas that they’ve tried in the truck series, and maybe those are things that we wouldn’t have thought of or never tried. In the long run, it’s going to make all four of our teams stronger.

“I don’t know Kurt very well, but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. He seems pretty easygoing and not nervous. I hope we can work really well together and we can bring another rookie title to Roush Racing.”

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