- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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There's not a lot that's memorable about California Speedway, at least not on the surface. Kyle Busch, though, would beg to differ.
For Busch, the track located in Fontana -- an hour or so east of Los Angeles depending on traffic -- has played quite a role in his development. In fact, in 2001, it was there that the brakes momentarily were put on his NASCAR career.
Running in the Craftsman Truck Series at the ripe old age of 16, Busch practiced for the season finale at the 2-mile track, only to be told he couldn't compete in the race because of his age. Shortly thereafter, NASCAR announced the minimum age 18 to compete in one of its three top series and its national touring series was 18.
That left Kurt Busch's younger brother with some time on his hands and plenty of time to think. Although he'd raced for Roush Racing in 2001, Kyle Busch elected to sign with Hendrick Motorsports in 2003 and made his Busch Series debut shortly after he turned 18.
Busch finished second in the Busch Series standings the next year, also running six Nextel Cup races in preparation for making the jump to Cup in '05. All he did last year was win Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors on the strength of two victories -- the first of which came a year ago this weekend at California Speedway.
Now, Busch heads to Fontana fourth in points and hoping to clinch a berth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. If that happens at this track, Busch will never agree it is far from memorable. But he knows a lot has changed since that day in '01 when he was pulled from the truck.
"It was tough for me to swallow that," he says now. "[But] today, I've become a better driver as well as more comfortable with my race cars and understanding [them] and being able to communicate that to the crew chief and the engineers, as well as the whole team."
Busch isn't going to catch Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth for one of the top two spots heading into the Chase, but he could move into third after the 26th race. That means he'd be just 10 points out of the lead when the points are reset for the 10 drivers fighting for the title.
Kasey Kahne is the only driver on the outside with a realistic chance of working his way into the top 10, so Busch knows the pressure to make the Chase isn't quite as intense as it might have been the previous two seasons.
Still, he's not about to coast into California.
"That makes it a little easier that you only have to worry about one guy, so the pressure is there to try to get yourself into the Chase," he said. "But I think more so right now what it is about is positioning yourself. You never know how much those five points coming down to Homestead will mean."
Which is why Busch will be going for it, within reason, this weekend. The track obviously is compared to Michigan International Speedway, the facility it was patterned after. And the two more than look the same, they even race the same, Busch said.
California is a track where you can find your own line as the race progresses.
"It's a finicky place sometimes, but for some reason, I've just been successful there," Busch said. "I'm not sure what it is. … The Busch Series, that's another story there. I haven't finished better than seventh in a Busch car. I'm looking forward to being able to get back out there with the Cup car and see what we can do in the Busch car, as well."
Assuming Kyle Busch makes the Chase, the one thing he won't encounter is a family affair in the championship battle. Kurt Busch is out of the running this year after making the Chase the previous two years, winning it in 2004.
Although the move to Penske Racing South hasn't exactly paid off on the track just yet, Kurt said he has no regrets. Still, he would like nothing more than to steal some of the limelight from the championship contenders this weekend.
"We ran the '04 body Dodge out there in the first race [this year]," Kurt said of his 16th-place finish in February, "and the car we'll have there this weekend is the new Dodge Charger. We went really soft on the springs [in February], and the car responded great for the first few laps of a run. But it was a real handful on long runs. We got spun out late in the race and were probably fortunate just to finish where we did.
"This car will have all the positive attributes we've learned so far this season built into it. It's another chance for us to learn and get a handle on the proper setups for these mile-and-a-half to two-mile oval tracks. We'll just keep after it till we finally figure it out and have our [car] up front at the end of the race like it should be."
Although battling his brother for the championship would have been memorable, Kyle Busch isn't surprised his brother's acclimation to a new team took longer than some might have expected.
"It's been a lot of a learning curve for him this year trying to understand the Penske chassis and Penske bodies and Penske race cars that they have over there," Kyle said. "[And] the team itself, the team is relatively new.
"It's kind of like a rookie season, if you will, all over again for Kurt, having to go through all the learning curves that you have to when you join a new team. It was not crazy that he didn't make the Chase. I was hoping he would so he could stay in there and have the two Busch brothers in, but it wasn't meant to be here in 2006, so maybe we'll see it in 2007."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.