Busch feels new vibe already
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It didn't take long for the magnitude of winning the Nextel Cup championship to sink in for Kurt Busch. He says that happened along with all the champagne that soaked into his driver's suit that November afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It hasn't even been two months since that shining moment put an exclamation point on Busch's young NASCAR career. Still, he's had some time to celebrate with friends and family, take a vacation with his girlfriend and test a car for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, a ride he'll share with Roush Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.
But now, just like that, Busch is back in front of the familiar horde of media, answering questions during a break in testing his Nextel Cup car for next month's Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, which culminates Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500.
Busch said the festivities in New York City before the Nextel Cup awards dinner further drove home the magnitude of his accomplishment, but that was nothing compared to his trips home to Las Vegas.
"To go back to Las Vegas to see the crowd there [was remarkable]," Busch says of a celebration held in his honor. "To come back and to go into a Hallmark store and it turns into an autograph session with people buying cards when it was around Christmas time [was special]. Just small things here and there start adding up.
"To come back [for testing] and to see [NASCAR President] Mike Helton and to have him refer to me as champ, it's here, it's now, it's great and it's time to go to work."
Busch can only hope his future conversations with the likes of Helton and Nextel Cup Series Director John Darby start so well. If so, it will mean he's having a good year on the track and dealing with the demands placed on the series champion off of it.
After all, it was just a few years ago when Busch was being called to NASCAR's mobile office at the track to discuss run-ins with Jimmy Spencer and Robby Gordon. Now, Busch hopes he'll be in the trailer to have his opinions considered instead of being read the riot act.
"I think my meetings in the Nextel hauler will be a bit more productive now, instead of more of a constructive criticism I'd say," Busch says hopefully. "Just to have this opportunity is something that humbles you. There's a great sense of pride that I feel with it and, of course, the honor to be a champion."
Two years ago, much was made of what type of a champion Tony Stewart would be and he sailed through his year in fine fashion. A year ago, Matt Kenseth was the under-the-radar champion and it's yet to be seen how Busch deals with being champion.
For whatever reason, a champion hasn't repeated since Jeff Gordon turned the trick in both 1997 and '98, so that means Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth have all failed to repeat in the interim.
Busch, though, says he's trying to take everything in stride.
"There are a bunch of different ways one can go with things and I still believe the best way to go about things in life is to be yourself and to have fun," Busch says. "It's the way that people are perceiving it, but, to me, it's a great feeling to know that we are champions.
"We achieved something very special, but we can get bumped off at the end of next year. It's something that lasts a year, I guess. That's something I just realized sitting up here today. It's not just a race win where you get bumped off next week, it takes a year for it to happen."
Unless, of course, Busch goes out and wins it again. And considering Roush Racing has won the last two titles, that certainly can't be ruled out. But as the last five champions have shown, that's easier said than done.
Busch says everyone will be shooting at his Jimmy Fennig-led team, so it will be up to the team to fend off that pressure. A year ago, the pressure was on the likes of Jimmie Johnson earlier in the Chase and it wasn't until Busch carried the lead into the final few events that teams began focusing on stopping him.
"To be able to go out and to create an image around myself and what my sponsors are and what position I'm in in the rankings every week from week to week, it's stuff that will take care of itself," Busch says. "It's stuff that I'm not directing my attention towards, it's just a matter of understanding what the big picture is and that's trying to get my sponsors in victory lane and the next Nextel Cup."
To help prepare for his title defense, Busch's team has been working on his fleet of Fords. But the driver has also done some work away from the shop.
Busch sought out teammate Kenseth, and also spoke with Gordon and Jarrett about how they handled title defenses.
"To see what [Kenseth says] he could have done better, we'll try that out," Busch says. "To see what Jeff Gordon has done with his four championships, with what Dale Jarrett, another Ford champion has done [is helpful]. It's endless the amount of things that you can pull from all of these guys. It's still about going and hanging out with my crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and being myself and going to the racetrack competitive and knowing that we've got an opportunity to win and we're gonna be respected as champions for the year."
Still, there will come days when the demands pile up and Busch feels a bit stressed out. Those days happen whether you're a champion or a driver making a run at his first title.
Busch, though, says having his family close at hand -- his parents have relocated from Las Vegas and brother Kyle will race for rookie of the year honors this season -- will help him remain grounded.
When racing's overwhelming, Busch will focus on helping his parents get comfortable in their still relatively new surroundings.
"The next stage for me is to make sure that they're the ones that recognize what they've done for Kyle and I," Busch says. "It's a great chance to have that piece of hardware sitting at home so that they can look at it as well. That's where I come from. I'm a family guy. I'm well grounded.
"That's definitely the foundation that I'll use to carry through this year. It's 38, 39 weekends of racing. We're here testing already. It's gonna be so much fun to be able to go to the racetrack. Already I'm reminded of what we did last year at this test, but yet now we come back as champions and we have a new approach. It's already begun to change things and how we look at it as a team, too."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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