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Cup stars invaders in Busch

By Wire services
Published February 19, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH - The first guy to take the checkered flag was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not far behind were Robby Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.

And this was supposed to be the minor leagues of stock car racing?

When it comes to NASCAR, the lines between the majors and the minors are blurred. Nextel Cup stars such as Earnhardt regularly race against the up-and-comers and on-the-way-downers in the Busch Series.

And no one finds it that unusual - though it's akin to Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds stopping by to play a few games in Triple A every year.

"I like it because we can come down here and be real successful," said Earnhardt, who won the season-opening Busch race Monday - less than 24 hours after winning the Daytona 500 on the same track. "It's just fun. Until they say we can't, I'll keep doing it."

NASCAR has no problem with its top drivers taking part in Busch races, knowing they bring in more fans and sponsors to the series that normally provides a warmup to the big event every weekend. The stars even have their own name: Buschwhackers.

The 34-race Busch season includes 26 events that are run in the same cities as Nextel Cup races, usually the day before to bolster the weekend schedule. (The Busch race at Daytona International Speedway was completed Monday because of rain.)

The other eight Busch races serve a different purpose for NASCAR, going to tracks - including Nashville, St. Louis and Kentucky - that haven't landed a prized spot on the Nextel Cup schedule. Call it the consolation prize.

Gordon, who finished third Monday, said the Nextel Cup regulars add a little glamour to the developmental series. He has a three-year deal to run 25 Busch races annually, in addition to his regular job.

"It's great for the sport," Gordon said. "If not for the Cup guys coming down, the Busch Series would struggle. They wouldn't have the sponsors they do now."

There are other benefits.

"We can teach the young kids what the next level is like," Gordon said. "A lot of the guys in our series came from the Busch Series."

What do the stars get out of it? For many, it's a chance to start building their own race team. Earnhardt, for example, co-owns a Busch operation with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt. Martin Truex is the team's fulltime driver, but Junior plans to take part in at least two more Busch races this season.

Then there's Johnny Sauter and Kasey Kahne, Nextel Cup rookies. They'll do double duty this season with a full slate of Busch races - a way to gain twice as much experience in a year's time.

There's nothing the Busch guys like better than beating the Buschwhackers. It didn't happen at Daytona, but the regulars did knock off the interlopers in six of the past nine companion races a year ago.

"It ups your game," Busch driver Jason Leffler said. "When I went down to the truck series for a couple of years, I didn't have as many good guys around me. I got into a rut. When I came back and did a couple of Cup races at the end of the year, I was like, "Holy cow. This is tough.' Those guys are the best. You have to do the best you can to stay with them."

The Busch Series serves up an interesting mix on race day. It's a chance to see drivers on the rise, such as 2003 champion Brian Vickers, who won the title at age 20 and earned a fulltime Cup ride this season.

Then there are drivers such as 33-year-old Jason Keller, who are trying to make a living in Busch while clinging to the hope of a promotion. With more and more 20-somethings getting a chance to race in the Cup series, he knows the window of opportunity is closing.

"Everyone has different agendas down here," Keller said. "Some guys are using it as a stepping stone. Some just use it to play around on a day off. Then there's guys like me and David Green, who are trying to use it for our fulltime job."

Busch officials have tried to level the playing field by requiring all teams to be in the inspection line before the first Cup practice on the morning of a Busch race. If nothing else, that eliminated the perception that Cup drivers had an advantage by getting in a practice right before the Busch race.

[Last modified February 19, 2004, 02:00:25]


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