Busch On Hometown High

LAS VEGAS – There’s a second-year driver sitting high in the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings. Driving for one of the powerhouse organizations, he’s put together two good races to stand 35 points out of the lead.

If you would have read that three weeks ago, you would have bet a lot of money that the driver was Kevin Harvick. But this is Las Vegas, where there are no guarantees of winning.

No, the driver isn’t Harvick. It’s a guy from Las Vegas, Roush Racing’s Kurt Busch. That’s right, Kurt Busch is 35 points behind Sterling Marlin. The same Kurt Busch who was overshadowed by Harvick in the Rookie of the Year battle last.

But Frank Stoddard, crew chief for Busch’s teammate Jeff Burton, isn’t surprised.

“He’s the real deal,” Stoddard said. “He’s an extremely talented kid. He’s got a great feel for the race car in talking with (crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig), and he wants to win. Those are things that you’ve got to have.

“I certainly believe that he will eventually be more talented than Kevin Harvick because he’s younger. I believe that right now he’s as good as Kevin Harvick given the same amount of experience Kevin Harvick has had.”

Stoddard said he though Busch would run well all year, and Las Vegas has continued Busch’s strong efforts. He was fastest in Friday’s practice and backed it up by qualifying third for Sunday’s UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I was over at the race shop on Monday, and everybody was running around on cloud nine,” Busch said. “I’m just hoping they found out where the edge was so they didn’t fall off too quick.”

The edge is the precarious place where a team can run well without becoming too self-absorbed to the point where they forget all the hard work that got them there. Busch’s team is there for the first time.

“It’s fantastic,” Busch said. “We look at 12th place this past weekend as being a bad finish for us. When you start looking at 12th place as being a bad finish, you know you’ve got something moving in the right direction and, that’s the confidence Jimmy Fennig puts in me and all the people around him. He’s a great character, very well rounded, and he’s just the mastermind of the Roush Racing crew chiefs.

“I’m the kind of guy that’s gonna give 100 percent of every lap to a crew chief, and when he gives it right back to me, we’re marching forward. It’s just like Sergio Garcia. He won the first PGA golf tournament of the year out in Hawaii, and he said it would be something to talk to his grandkids about on how he was the money leader on the tour for a week. Right now we’re third in points, and it’s gonna be great to talk about that in the future, but, hopefully, we’ll be able to polish on it to where we can be in the Top 5 come midyear and stick around through the end of the year.”

Yes, Busch is living a wonderful life. He’s third in points, and he qualified third on his home track.

“Heading back home is always exciting for me,” Busch said. “For one, I love racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, I have run well there in the past and I’m hoping that we can carry the momentum that we have started from Daytona through this weekend. Also, I get a chance to do a lot of fun things and show people a side of Las Vegas that they don’t ordinarily see. There is more to Las Vegas than just the strip, but not many people know that.”

There’s more to Busch, too, though many people haven’t seen it yet. His rookie season was less than spectacular, as he was about as successful as his favorite baseball team, the lovable losers Chicago Cubs. Busch finished 27th in points with three Top 5s and six Top 10s. The low point of the season came in the penultimate race, where Busch failed to qualify at Atlanta.

The off-season brought a crew chief change, as Ben Leslie was “traded” to Mark Martin’s team in favor of the veteran Fennig. The switch has seemed to invigorate Busch’s team.

Rockingham was a good example of Fennig’s leadership. And of a team fighting through adversity. The problem with the engine was discovered after 150 laps on it Friday and Saturday. Had the one-engine rule not been in place, car owner Jack Roush said, Busch’s engine would have blown up during the race.

Instead, Busch started last. But he battled through it, saying, “I’d rather start last than finish last.”

“That’s the quote I put in my mind at the beginning of the race, and you soldier on with that,” Busch said. “I had that same type of problem three times last year and while it can be a bit hard to swallow, I’m the type of guy that this is a new year. We’re gonna have our foul balls and we’re gonna work on it so we can stay up at bat for as long as we can.

“Right now, we’re third in points, which is a great, solid start to dig us out of that hole we have from last year. That was the objective from the beginning.”

Busch avoided trouble at Rockingham, fought from getting a lap down, and passed Ricky Rudd late in the race to get 12th.

“I gave my feedback to Jimmy, and the adjustments he made because he turned it from an ill-handling pile to something that was really crisp,” Busch said. “We drove up there and got our lap back and pulled away from the leader. We made Ricky Rudd look like he was tied to a post.”

Now, the trick is to do it every week. And that’s a monumental task. But Busch is ready.

“I’m the kind of guy that looks at reality and tries to achieve that,” Busch said. “When I start to see different and subtle changes and feel that reality is different, then I’ll change that objective. I think we can better ourselves, and I feel we’ve got that ability to finish somewhere in that sixth-to-15 range. We can go as far up as sixth in points and maybe even Top 5. Who knows how the breaks are gonna go this year?”

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