Prodigy eager for Cup debut

Updated: March 8, 2004, 12:25 AM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

Kyle Busch
Busch
He's been called perhaps the best young, naturally talented driver NASCAR has ever seen. On potential alone, he might trump present-day greats Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His older brother raves about him: "If you think I'm good, you haven't seen anything yet. He's better than me."

After what threatened to break out into a bidding war for his services, he settled on signing with one of the best organizations in NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports.

Along that same vein, not too many people can brag about having teammates like four-time Cup champion Gordon, two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte, outstanding young gun Jimmie Johnson and defending Busch Series champ (and Cup rookie this season) Brian Vickers.

Now, we'll see this weekend if Kyle Busch can live up to all the hype as he tries to qualify Friday for what would be his Nextel Cup debut in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Fate couldn't have picked a better place for Busch to try for his first Cup start. After having his illegally-sized Hendrick Motorsports car confiscated last year before attempting to qualify for the season-ender at Homestead-Miami, Busch now gets to roll the dice in his hometown.

With dozens of friends and family members expected to be in attendance, he'll have more than enough moral support behind him.

And, given all the advance billing for this young phenom, don't be surprised if he goes out and not only qualifies well, but pulls off the upset of the year with a victory.

He's that good.

"We've definitely got a great opportunity here going into this weekend in Las Vegas, and we're really excited to get their season started and kicked off with the No. 84 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series," said Kyle, who is also racing the No. 5 Lowe's Chevrolet full-time in the Busch Series. "Hopefully we've done everything we need to do to be ready, and the hometown fans are ready to get started, too."

While most 18-year-olds aren't sure of what their college major will be, Busch has both a level head and a firm handle on what he wants to be: a race car driver.

In his first Craftsman Truck series race ever -- which occurred at LVMS two years ago -- Kyle started an outstanding third and finished an impressive ninth. However, bowing to criticism that teenagers shouldn't be racing with stock car racing's big boys, NASCAR officials created new rules that a driver in trucks or Busch/Cup racing must be at least 18 years old to compete, knocking young Kyle out of his truck seat.

While he was angry with NASCAR's decision at the time, a more mature Busch surprisingly says today that the sanctioning body made the right move in yanking him from the seat.

"NASCAR did what they had to do and made the correct decision, I believe," Busch said. "At the time I was very devastated. To have to go home and reevaluate things and go run ASA (American Speed Association) was definitely a bigger learning experience for me, I think, than it was running my Late Models at my hometown.

"So, it gave me a lot more experience I needed to know before I got into the professional racing of NASCAR, such as the Craftsman Truck Series or the NASCAR Busch Series. Not only was it a little bit of a setback, but it was actually a help in propelling my career."

If you think I'm good, you haven't seen anything yet. He's better than
me.
Kurt Busch on his younger brother, Kyle

But Kyle still had the last laugh on NASCAR. When he turned 18 last May, he made his first Busch Series start for the Hendrick organization, just barely missing the checkered flag and having to settle for second place.

Not shabby, indeed.

In six other Busch starts last season, he added another runner-up finish (at Darlington, S.C.), as well as a seventh-place outing. In fact, he had five finishes in the top-16, and the other two outings, 33rd and 43rd-place showings, were due to a crash and engine failure.

Thus far in two Busch Series races this year, Kyle has had mixed results. He settled for a disappointing 24th-place showing at Daytona due to overheating problems, but bounced back to finish seventh last week at Rockingham, propelling him from 24th to 12th in the series standings heading to Las Vegas.

"It's definitely a lot of fun to go back to your hometown and race in front of all of the fans that supported you throughout the years when you were racing Legends cars and such," he said. "I want to thank those people again, to let them know that they're the reason why I'm here in the Busch Series and Nextel Cup Series. It's because of all their help and support that they've given to me through the past years in local racing."

If he makes the field in qualifying on Friday, it should set up a rather unique matchup with brother Kurt, who is seven years older.

"Hopefully, we can run up near the front where he's going to be, and try to at least get some pictures out of the deal if not anything else," Kyle said. "We'll definitely be wanting to run against him, side by side with him, and the other 41 competitors that are going to be out there as well, too. We're definitely going to have a great time running against each other."

The Busch brothers will have another fellow Las Vegan to contend with in Sunday's race, rookie Brendan Gaughan, which should further intensify the on-track rivalry between the three drivers.

At this juncture, Kyle will attempt to make the field in a maximum of seven Cup events this season. By doing so, he'll preserve his rookie status for when he moves to Cup competition on a full-time basis, most likely in 2006.

Other Cup events he plans to enter include next month at Texas, plus twice at Charlotte in May (for the Nextel All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a week before the grueling Memorial Day Coca-Cola 600 classic), as well as Michigan, New Hampshire and California.

While some of those are rather heady tracks for a teenager, Kyle's focus is to try and achieve the simplest things first, and everything else will be gravy.

Kyle Busch
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeKyle Busch smiles after winning the ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway on May 10.

"Our goal, pretty much, is to try and go out there and make every race," he said. "Then, just to try and make every lap. I mean, if I can do that, it would be awesome for me just because the series is so darn tough."

But he's not afraid of potentially mixing it up with some of the big boys on Sunday, either.

"Maybe there's a couple of chances where we can squeak out with a top-10 finish, or a top-15 finish," Kyle said. "Even if you want to go so far to say that, knock on wood, you can get a top-five finish, maybe we can do that. We're definitely going to set our goals realistically and just try to the best job we can and run every lap and be competitive."

With his older brother now in his fourth full season as a Cup racer, Kyle can obviously draw a great deal upon Kurt's experiences -- be it successes or mistakes.

"Growing up and racing in Las Vegas with him and seeing how he raced and what mistakes he made on the racetrack, I was able to learn from those and not try to do the same things that he did that would get him into a little bit of trouble as far as getting into wrecks and stuff," Kyle said.

"The more he got up into the ranks and the better he did, I also watched and learned from him. Not only him, but the other drivers, too. To have him as a teacher and a mentor, with me being the follower, it definitely makes it where it's a lot easier for me.

"I have the close connection to him where I can go up to him, talk to him about certain things and ask him about certain situations, and where he can give me his response back, I can realize it and understand it a little bit more."

Seeing what his older sibling has gone through has also altered Kyle's style of racing. Not only is he lightning fast, he also is quickly becoming known as a thinking man's racer -- or is that a thinking teen's racer?

"I'd have to say that I'm more towards the cautiously aggressive side," he said. "You want to go out there and be aggressive and do the best job that you can do, week in and week out. But you also want to be cautious about it, too, so you don't get yourself into a lot of trouble on the racetrack.

"I'd have to say that being able to be that kind of driver just shows that you can definitely be fast and be aggressive, but you also have to be cautious and know exactly what could happen if you get yourself in a certain situation.

"There's definitely a big learning experience on things that you do in order to grow up and come up through the ranks and become professional race car drivers. But you just kind of sit back and realize what exactly brought you up here."

In Kyle's case, talent is certainly one obvious answer. But a level head hasn't hurt him, either.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.