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Racing 2004

Stepping out of shadows

Kyle Busch tries to separate himself from his predecessor and his brother, Kurt.

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 13, 2004

photo
[Photo: AP(2003)]
If Kyle Busch wins the series title this season, he would be the youngest driver to do so, surpassing the record set by Brian Vickers in 2003.

It's not as if Kyle Busch needs the extra scrutiny.

That last name does just fine in drawing the discerning eye, scrunching brows as the observer, unfairly or not, heaps all those preconceived notions on the 18-year-old's angular frame.

Being the younger brother of a Nextel Cup driver can have many advantages for someone who aspires to the same success. Being the younger brother of one who has been as villainized as Kurt Busch the past year makes one's way more treacherous, pitted with leading questions and probes for the sibling's level of Kurt-ness.

But Kyle Busch has another source of pressure, one that has received less attention than his lineage outside of the Hendrick Motorsports garage.

A season after driving for the first time in the Busch Series, finishing twice in seven starts, Busch will take over the Hendrick Motorsports No.5 Chevrolet in which Brian Vickers won the 2003 championship.

Crew chief Lance McGrew and the entire crew return. Everything is the same except for a few readjusted pedals and a seat made for the slight Busch.

No pressure there.

"It's kind of unbelievable to be thrown into such an operation as this," Busch said. "I keep saying that, but there's really no other words for it.

"We're going to try and make the best out of it. Brian left some big shoes to fill."

Team owner Rick Hendrick thinks Busch is up for the job. Hendirck added him last February to a stable that includes Jeff Gordon, who won four Winston Cups; Terry Labonte, who won two; Jimmie Johnson and Vickers. After a few months working as crew chief of Busch's ARCA team, former Labonte crew chief Gary DeHart called Busch a "damn robot" because of his level of technical skill.

McGrew and his team know it's useless to try to shelter Busch from pressure or expectation, especially when Vickers - now Hendrick's full-time Cup driver of the No.25 - pops his head into the Busch shop to tease his successor, telling him not to screw up his ride.

"We pick on (Busch) in the shop pretty big," McGrew smiled. "We say, "You're the unknown element and we've been here before,' but it's all in fun. I think for him it's a little overwhelming to sit in the seat and be exposed to all the things right off the bat.

"There are some things we're going to have to deal with and help him with, the way we're used to doing things so he's more comfortable, whether we win or not. The name of the game is if he's not comfortable, we're not going to be fast."

Busch made his truck series debut in August 2001 at age 16. He started 23rd at Indianapolis Raceway Park and finished ninth in a Roush Racing entry. He ran six events and had two top-10 finishes.

A new NASCAR rule requiring drivers and crew to be at least 18 forced Busch to run in American Speed Association the next year, and he finished eighth in the standings.

After running a handful of ARCA and Busch races last season, Busch attempted to make his first Winston Cup start in the season finale at Homestead, but his car failed inspection and was withdrawn. Hendrick will enter a Nextel Cup car for him in the March 7 race at Las Vegas, his hometown.

Busch said he is glad he opted to veer from his brother's path and make his own way.

"(Kurt) told me I will either screw it up or make it big for myself," Busch said.

"So far I've made it huge for myself. Not only am I glad I made the move over here, I think it's really helped out not only in my learning curve as a driver but in my media relations as well."

Was that a shot? You never know when the brothers start barbing each other. The hot topic: their Legends Car series. They've raced 12 times and split the series with six each.

"It'll be fun to see him take the steps I had to take, of understanding the cars and putting together a program," Kurt Busch said. "Whether he gets his own ride in Nextel Cup with Hendrick or takes over for Terry Labonte in two years, one year, who knows? It would be fun to see him get that."

No pressure there.

[Last modified February 11, 2004, 13:00:10]


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