Burning Busch

Times Staff Writer

Seldom has any major league race driver made such a meteoric rise to the top as Kurt Busch.

Four years ago, he was driving a legends car at Irwindale Speedway while competing for NASCAR's Southwest Tour stock car championship.

Today, he is driving a Ford Taurus and leading the Winston Cup standings as racing's most prestigious series comes to Busch's hometown for the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.

Busch qualified fifth for today's race with a qualifying speed of 172.441 mph. His two second-place finishes, at Daytona and Rockingham, have him 31 points ahead of Dale Jarrett, but that is only part of the story.

In Busch's last five races in 2002, he had three victories, finishing third in Winston Cup points behind Tony Stewart and Mark Martin, one of Busch's Roush Racing teammates.

"You go back to the end of last year and the start of this year, that young man is the hottest driver out here," said Jarrett, 46, the 1999 Winston Cup champion. "Kurt Busch is a guy that I think everybody is gonna have to contend with. He runs well at every single type of track."

Busch, 24, particularly wants to run well at Las Vegas Motor Speedway today in front of his family and old high school buddies.

"Winning here probably would be the biggest thing for me in terms of winning a single race," he said. "The Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis are right up there, but I can't imagine anything being any bigger than winning in Vegas."

It was here that his career started, racing dwarf cars at 14 at Pahrump Valley Speedway, a dirt track about 60 miles west of the city.

"My dad [Tom] raced late-model stock cars at local tracks like Craig Road Speedway -- he won a lot of track championships there -- and Saturday nights at the racetrack was a way of life for us. I didn't race karts, like most of the guys, because my mother thought it was too dangerous."

So now her son is racing at more than 200 mph on the nation's superspeedways.

"I owe everything ... to my dad," Busch said. "He got me started, he guided me and he's been my inspiration."

Being in the right place at the right time also helped.

"If there is a key day to my success, it would be the 1999 Winston West race at Sears Point," Busch said. "It was a support race for Winston Cup and all the teams were watching. When I won it, it opened the doors for me with team owners.

"Until then I had been driving Southwest Tour cars and once in a while I'd run the legends because they are so much fun."

During 1999, Busch, driving for Craig Keough, became the youngest driver to win the Southwest Tour championship. He also drove three Winston West races and occasional legends races.

"Jack Roush called me after the Sears Point race and ended up signing me to drive one of his trucks in 2000," Busch recalled.

Busch drove his first Craftsman Truck race at Daytona and finished second to Mike Wallace. It was the race in which Geoffrey Bodine's truck crashed and burned in one of the worst accidents in the track's long history.

"I was lucky," Busch said. "I was ahead of it."

The slender 5-foot-11, 150-pound youngster is also lucky to have assistance from veteran teammates such as Martin and Jeff Burton.

"I knew I had a bit of learning to do when I signed with Roush, so I was very open to building a good rapport with the veterans," he said. "I asked a lot of good questions and got a lot of good answers. I think one thing that helped was that I didn't come in acting like I knew everything, the way some young guys do.

"We share insider information as teammates for six days and yet we compete with one another on the seventh. That's the way you do with five cars, you share vital information."

The Roush team is the largest in Winston Cup, with Matt Kenseth and rookie Greg Biffle also in the fold.

Busch said there is no teamwork once the racing starts.

"You don't have time to stage anything," he said. "Everybody is racing their car to the best of their ability and you have to find the right hole to go in to move forward and to keep your momentum and to run the fastest lap time you can."

Much has been made of NASCAR's youth movement, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler all under 30 -- and Busch youngest of them all.

"All that stuff about the old guys and the young guys is that it gives you writers something to write about," Busch said.

Ditto, said Martin, 44.

"The age difference between Kurt Busch and Dale Jarrett is something to write about, but it's nothing when we're on the racetrack," he said. "It's not an issue. It's an issue of who has the best car and who does the best job. It isn't someone with gray hair against someone with a spiked haircut. It's not about that, but obviously, there is a certain degree of excitement to see incredibly young, talented new faces come into the sport."

Las Vegas Motor Speedway will offer completely different characteristics to drivers and crewmen than the banked Daytona and Rockingham ovals did the previous two weeks. Las Vegas is a flat, fast, 1.5-mile track where restrictor plates are not used -- making aerodynamics most important in determining how cars respond.

"Las Vegas is very smooth and is a gorgeous track to drive," said Busch, who has driven three races on the surface. "You can drive five-wide down the front straightaway and then funnel down to two wide going into the corners with no stress whatsoever. The asphalt has matured well enough to where you can do a lot of things. You can run low, run the middle, and the high groove is coming in as well.

"You can pin somebody low or keep somebody up high, and you've got a whole different feel than you do at other places that are shaped just like it."

Busch won a Winston West race here in 1999; in two Cup races, he finished 11th in 2001 and 20th last year.

"The challenge is to get the right balance, to have the right setup for the race," he said. "You have to get your downforce right. I know with the new templates this year we lost quite a bit of downforce in the back and front, but we kept our balance."

Doug Duchardt, GM's NASCAR manager, said that although the templates used at Daytona would be used for today's race, the variables are vast.

"There will be about 500 pounds of difference in the downforce exerted on those cars," he said. "At Daytona, the cars were roughly at 900 pounds of downforce and [here] we'll have more than 1,400 pounds with the same templates.

"That's a sizable difference and makes it a little easier to understand some of the flexibility that still exists under the new [common body] system."

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