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Kurt Busch relishes post-title attention, knowing it might not last. His predecessor merely tolerated it.

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 15, 2005


DAYTONA BEACH - Kurt Busch likes wearing the suit. Really likes wearing the suit. Don't be fooled, it's a dapper ensemble, charcoal gray with a perfectly pressed dark blue dress shirt beneath.

A Nextel Cup championship hangs well on the well-groomed 26-year-old's 5-foot-11, 150-pound frame. As the champion and 365-day face of a NASCAR series hoping to gloss its image and reach deeper into blue states, he needs to look his best on the set of morning chat shows, or in a firm handshake photo op with the president at the White House.

Quoth Busch, whose propensity for voluminous verbiage is requisite with the title he wields: "When you're off the racetrack, things can be said or done differently to represent as a champion with pride and with dignity and honor that comes with being a champion."

Translation: Busch saw his title as a coming out, Roush Racing president Geoff Smith said. It's the next phase of a career pocked early with controversy, bad temper and a bad public image.

"Kurt had a little extra something to show the world," he said, "which is "Yes, I am not quite the same guy I was when I came in here at 21. I'm ready to assume this mantle of a champion and I want to show you all I can do that, and by the way, (I'll) generally enjoy everything.' There wasn't anything he didn't do or didn't want to do. He just embraced the whole opportunity, living life large."

Matt Kenseth, however, was relieved to finally be able to slide back into one of those sponsor-branded golf shirts. Turning over a champion's responsibilities in exchange for his identity and his time came easily.

A champion takes from the experience what his personality allows, and for Kenseth, the 2003 titlist, the only common thread with Busch was making their team owner, Jack Roush, happy the past two offseasons.

"When I'm not at the racetrack, I like to sit on my couch and be at home," Kenseth, 32, said. "When I go to the track I hang out at the motorhome or whatever. (Busch) likes to do some of the things maybe I don't necessarily like to do. I'm not a guy who really likes to get dressed up or go out, and he likes to do some of that stuff. ... Right now he says he's fired up, but I think October (will be) the big time to see how he's doing. It's just that there's a lot more chance to do things after you've won the championship than there was the year before and he's a guy that will probably do them all and maybe enjoy them."

Therein lies the pitfall of repeating.

Finding the balance between celebration and overindulgence, where duties as champion can coincide with the effort needed to defend a title, is critical. Kenseth said it took him a while to learn to say no last year, and Busch will test his limits when the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule begins Sunday with the Daytona 500.

"Everybody is always trying to get your guys, there's always people in your ear, and for Kurt there will be opportunities," Kenseth said. "But he will be busier than he has ever been and it will harder to be around the race car. It depends on how much time you set aside to be with the race car and not be burned out."

Still, Kenseth does not consider complacency or burnout a factor in his team's eighth-place finish in points last season. Winning one title is difficult, he said. There is no reason why winning another should be any easier.

Smith is very much a student of the personalities on his team and how they mix.

"I'd say they both appreciated being the champion tremendously, but I think in terms of life-changing experience, it probably more changed Kurt," Smith said.

The potential for change was always there. It just took a championship to test it.

"I think Matt is a born Midwesterner through and through and I think he enjoyed several of the items, like the presidential visit and some of the TV appearances, but I think as a person it didn't affect who Matt Kenseth was beforehand or after," he said of the Cambridge, Wis., native.

"I think Kurt Busch, being younger, from Vegas, he's seen I'm sure in Las Vegas that there was another world of public life that he wasn't a part of and so this moment was totally embraced by Kurt in every aspect. Probably growing up in Vegas, I think it would be something where he would say, "If I could be part of something like that, it would really be awesome."'

But Las Vegas also instilled a certain sensibility. Growing up in the glitz capital of the world, where finding something real and lasting can be futile, Busch learned the value of appreciating what can be fleeting fame.

"That city has so many people who go in and out that make it big and then they dive, their 15 minutes of fame is up," he said.

"I might be done the next day. I might be one of those victims who fell into their 15 minutes. You never know."

So with great joy, Busch allowed himself to mobbed at an In-N-Out Burger joint back home - after he was asked if he was a body double - then had an impromptu autograph session at a Charlotte greeting card store.

"That's the worst place you can go," Busch said. "Because there's cards and paper everywhere.

"But it was great just to have that embracement."

He'll embrace it as long and as hard as he can.