Kyle Busch living up to brother's expectations
In 2001, when Kyle Busch was 16 and a high school junior, older brother Kurt sounded a warning to NASCAR competitors.
"You think I'm a pretty good race car driver? Wait until you see my brother. He's the best driver in the family," said Kurt, then a rookie with Roush Racing in NASCAR's top stock car series.
Kyle, now 20, has done little in the intervening years to make people dispute his sibling's words. And Kurt, seven years older, has proved to be a pretty good driver himself, winning 13 races and the 2004 Nextel Cup championship.
His kid brother drove six Truck Series races for Jack Roush in 2001, earning a pair of top-10s, before NASCAR decided to enforce an 18-year-old minimum.
The younger Busch didn't pout. In 2002, he graduated a year early from his Las Vegas high school -- with honors -- and spent that season in the American Speed Association, getting some seasoning and earning 10 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
He was signed by Hendrick Motorsports in December of that year. He won a couple of ARCA stock car races and, after turning 18 on May 2, 2003, the team entered Busch in seven Busch Series events. In 2004, he went into the development series full-time and won five races, finishing second in the points.
When two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte decided to cut back to a part-time schedule in 2005, that left the No. 5 Chevrolet open for the youngster. Team owner Rick Hendrick put Busch together with rookie crew chief Alan Gustafson and the two hit it off right away, with Busch finishing second in Las Vegas in only his third start this season.
The rest of the year has been up and down, with only seven more top-10 finishes, culminating with last Sunday night's victory at California Speedway that made Busch the youngest winner in NASCAR's top series by four days.
The young driver was excited, but showed very little surprise.
"Heck, we could have been here at least five times before this," Busch said. "The confidence has always been up with the equipment that we had, with my team owner Rick Hendrick, with the setups we've been able to run with Alan."
However, going into California, Busch's team had been struggling, and finishes of 39th, 10th, 33rd, 43rd and 33rd in the five previous events had long ago eliminated the youngster from any shot at the season-ending chase for the championship.
He said he spent considerable time last week talking with his crew about the situation and doing a lot of soul searching. It apparently worked.
"It's one of those deals where the final piece of the puzzle was so hard to find," Busch said. "Finally, we were just able to get there and do it. It's unbelievable as far as how the team has just kept composure on everything."
The only missing ingredient in his first Cup victory celebration was his friend and mentor, Ricky Hendrick.
The son of the team owner had the foresight to lure Busch away from Roush. Now, Busch is a big part of the legacy left behind when 24-year-old Ricky Hendrick died last October in the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane that killed 10 people.
Ricky Hendrick, who appeared destined to eventually take over leadership of the elite team from his father, was the catalyst behind the decision to put the No. 5 Cup car and the No. 25, with 21-year-old Brian Vickers -- another Ricky Hendrick discovery -- into the same race shop.
Vickers struggled last year as a rookie, with only four top-10 finishes. But he too appears to be turning the corner toward stardom with a second-half surge this season. His third-place finish in California was his fourth top-10 in his last five starts and his ninth of the season.
Rick Hendrick appeared near tears several times late in Sunday's race and again during the ensuing celebration.
"I think that Ricky had so much confidence in Kyle and the structure of the 25 and the 5, and to see the two cars run like that tonight and Kyle to win the race and become the youngest guy, it's incredible," Hendrick said.
"Kyle has done a super job," the owner added. "He got a lot of criticism early on that he was too young, but I'm just really proud of the team and the effort they put forth."
Hendrick said he and his son designed the shop for the 5 and 25 cars.
"When we put the two teams together, we promised them a bonus when they won their first race, and they worked together as one big team with two cars," he said. "There's a lot of youth on those two teams and I didn't know it would come together as quick as it has this year."
Busch was nervous as the race neared its conclusion, worrying about making a final pit stop and wondering if he could hold off veteran Greg Biffle. He needn't have been concerned -- he and his crew pulled off a great two-tire stop and he easily held off Biffle after a late caution flag sent the race into overtime.
"I didn't really have a good line in practice or in qualifying," Busch said. "In the race, I was just running around there a good part of the race and kind of clicked on something and I just kept on digging with it and it kept on working and I stayed with it.
"It's just one of those deals where I was able to find that luck for me and it worked good enough where I was able to keep it up front."
It likely will not be the last time.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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