Busch Beating The Odds In Vegas

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LAS VEGAS – It was Jeff Burton, or perhaps Mark Martin, that was supposed to be the top qualifier among the four Roush Racing drivers attempting to make the field for Sunday’s NASCAR Winston Cup UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

You might even have bought into Matt Kenseth. But, rookie Kurt Busch?

The unlikely turned into reality Friday during Bud Pole Qualifying at the 1.5-mile desert oval. The Las Vegas area native, who had run only one previous race at LVMS (in the Featherlite Southwest Series), turned in the best run by any Roush driver by qualifying ninth with a speed of 171.130 mph, putting his unsponsored No. 97 Taurus on the inside of Row 5 for Sunday’s event.

There have been only three previous Winston Cup races at Las Vegas, all won by Martin and Burton. Martin won the inaugural event in 1998, while Burton has taken the checkered flag in the last two.

Those two will have some work to do to win on Sunday, however. Martin qualified 16th, while Burton was a mere 28th Friday. Kenseth qualified 22nd.

After his lap, Busch got out of his Taurus and received a loud ovation. Jokingly, he said, he looked around to see if Jeff Gordon was standing anywhere near him.

Fortunately for Busch, he was the one the crowd was giving their signs of approval toward.

“It was surprising to jump out of the car and hear the fans screaming for once,” Busch said with a smile. “It’s different in Winston Cup because nobody knows who we are and it’s great to come back home and have these home fans cheering for us.”

If he continues to run as well as he did Friday, there may be a day in the very near future when he’s the center of attention. Coming off a highly successful stint in the Craftsman Truck Series last year, Busch was given the nod by Roush to move up the ladder and into the Winston Cup Series full-time in 2001. Friday’s effort equaled a career-best qualifying effort for Busch, who also qualified ninth last weekend at Rockingham.

He was also the top-qualifying rookie on Friday, and hopes to parlay that effort into a strong outing on Sunday.

Busch seemed a bit in awe that he’d put down a qualifying effort on Friday that was good enough to beat his Roush teammates.

“It doesn't even feel like I’m here racing,” Busch said. “I was a spectator for the past three years watching my team cars win races here, so it’s great to be part of Roush Racing here. Just because Roush has won all the races doesn’t mean a Ford is going to win, but we’d sure like to continue that streak for our team.”

Busch said that, despite his quick ascent up the NASCAR ladder, he’s slowly but surely becoming more comfortable with the future that has been laid before him.

”I’m a rookie,” Busch said. “The biggest thing was getting in the Daytona 500 because we had to play it conservative in the qualifying race. We finished 12th and the Top 14 advanced, so we got in by the skin of our teeth, but we raced real strong in the 500 and that's the only way I’m satisfied after a race weekend.

“I look and see how did we perform during the race. We made our way up to the front. We had great pit stops. We’d come in eighth and go out sixth and that means we’ve got a Top 10 caliber pit crew. It’s just a matter of me giving back to them and making it all worthwhile so we can put together Top 10 finishes.

“At Rockingham we qualified ninth and at Vegas we qualified ninth. At Rockingham we made a rookie mistake. I got up in the fence and knocked the toe-in out of the car and that made for a long day. Here we are, this is the third race of the season. Really, the season hasn’t even begun yet for us. This is the lump sum of it and after the first five races is where we’ll make a decision on how our season started and where to go from there.”

Now that Busch is getting the job done on the track, he’s hoping the addition of a primary sponsor for the team isn’t far behind.

“They told me to make it easy on them, and I’ve tried to do my best by going out there and running strong,” Busch says. “We had seven races last year to showcase what we could do in the John Deere (sponsored) car and it was unfortunate they couldn’t come back.

“We've talked with people in Daytona and we’ve talked with people in Rockingham and again here in Las Vegas. It’s just a matter of time before something gets put together. I think the business world is waiting until the first of April, which is the second quarter of the year. We’ve got three to four different companies that I would fit with and they would fit with our program really well.”

Right now, Busch is fitting into the Roush program rather nicely himself.

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