Thomas Bowles · Sunday September 4, 2005
On Sunday night at California Speedway, there was a weird thing happening shortly after the checkered flag flew. You had Kurt Busch standing in the middle of Victory Lane—- but he wasn’t the guy about to hold the winning trophy. Nor was Busch there congratulating one of his Roush Racing teammates. No, the defending Nextel Cup champion was leaning through a car’s side window congratulating a member of his own family, a brother who’d just set his own Nextel Cup record as the youngest driver ever to win a race at the sport’s highest level. Instead of Kurt basking in the limelight, he was there to simply be brother Kyle Busch’s biggest supporter, expressing his joy and then getting out of the way to let the world see how quickly his younger brother had grown up.
To be honest, my first thought when I saw Kyle Busch in Victory Lane on Sunday is that nobody saw this coming. No, I’m not talking about in the past month…Kyle’s team has been running up front consistently, and it was pretty much a matter of time before the 5 car or teammate Brian Vickers was going to find the right road to Victory Lane. I’m talking about the beginning of the season, when must critics, including this very writer, had Kyle pegged as crashing and burning out in his rookie season.
You see, the record of Kyle’s older brother is probably what had everyone caught off guard, a shadow that the younger Busch has long been trying to pull himself out of. Kurt’s rookie season on the Nextel Cup tour was a disaster, in part due to a decision to bring him up to the Cup series at 21, with just one full season in the Craftsman Truck Series under his belt. Kurt even has admitted since that was a major mistake. He spent the year running into more people on the track then a car at a demolition derby, all the while dealing with a nagging immaturity problem that had him struggling to come to grips with the pressure of moving to the sport’s highest level (something he still seems to struggle with even to this very day).
Understandably, many observers thought those same Busch genes would apply to Kyle. Only 19 when he started this year’s Nextel Cup season, Kyle, like Kurt, had just one year of experience in a NASCAR development series before moving up, finishing second in the 2004 Busch Series standings behind Martin Truex, Jr. That Busch Series season was marked with promise but also streaks of immaturity, most notably an incident with Greg Biffle at Pikes Peak and several incidents of frustration down the championship homestretch as Truex slowly began to pull away while Busch faded out of contention. Meanwhile, Kyle had done poorly at best in a limited Cup schedule for Rick Hendrick, registering a high finish of 24th in six starts while piling up four DNF’s, three due to accidents of his own creation.
Not only that, but Kyle was inheriting a ride that hadn’t exactly set the Cup world on fire in recent years, much like his older brother did when he inherited Chad Little’s spot in the Roush stable for 2001. Terry Labonte’s stint in the 5 car had produced just one victory since the beginning of the 2000 season, and other than a 10th place finish in the 2003 point standings, the team had struggled, with Terry finishing 26th in points and failing to get a Top 5 finish.
But Rick Hendrick, a longtime genius in his own right, knew what he was doing when he paired Kyle up with a young, unproven crew chief in 29-year-old Alan Gustafson, and put the team together with the organization’s other “young gun,” Brian Vickers. Housed in a separate shop that specialized in getting the 5 and 25 teams to work together in a fashion similar to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the teams fell under the direction of longtime Hendrick guru Brian Whitesell, and the teams clicked right off the bat. It gave Kyle a clean slate to go out and prove critics wrong by doing things his own way, something he’s held firm to ever since he left the comfy confines of his older brother to switch to Roush Racing’s biggest rival a few years ago. Kyle always claimed Hendrick’s development deal offered the sweeter contract and greater commitment, but you wonder if deep down he was looking to blaze his own path separate from the one his brother was creating. And with three-quarters of a rookie season under his belt that has resulted in few wrecks, surprising maturity, and growing respect for Kyle among a group of veterans looking to put the “young guns” back in their place, you wonder if Kyle was indeed taking notes when he saw his older brother screw up not that many years ago, to make sure it never happened again.
So in Victory Lane on this beautiful Sunday night in Fontana, Kurt knew better than to share the limelight with Kyle. The older Busch stepped back just in time for the Victory Lane cameras to step in, and allowed Allen Bestwick to fully introduce even the casual Nextel Cup fan to the sport’s next superstar. No use hiding it now; there’s a new Busch in town, and in just a few years, it very well be the one we’re talking about at the top of the Nextel Cup heap, with the older brother looking up in admiration similar to the way we all did on Sunday. And us critics, well…serves proof that we should shut up every now and then. Just because two people have the same last name doesn’t mean they’re going to play the game the same. Kyle’s proven that to everyone all year long.
P.S. Coming Later This Week: Watch as the Dale Jarrett mailbag gets answered, as I tangle some of the many, many comments I got over last week’s column.
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