Spotlight lands on low-profile driver Busch

Nextel Cup champion to celebrate unlikely title

Auto Racing

December 02, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Nextel Cup car owner Jack Roush blew into the 21 Club in Manhattan with his signature rimmed brown hat set at a confident angle. The staff greeted him like an old friend - smiles, handshakes. "Welcome back," they said.

After all, it was just a year ago that Roush had been here to celebrate his first NASCAR Cup championship with driver Matt Kenseth.

Now, he was back to celebrate another.

"I didn't think this championship was going to happen, either," he said, acknowledging the surprising nature of driver Kurt Busch's 2004 Cup title. "The 48 [Jimmie Johnson] and the 24 [Jeff Gordon] were on such an inspiring run and the swell of interest in seeing Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. win it. To me, the odds were we would not prevail."

Almost everyone thought Busch, who until this season was not only slim in body, but also slight in stature, would revert to his past immaturity and wilt beneath the pressure of being a front-runner.

And Roush acknowledged it might have happened if anyone had thought Busch really had a chance. But few believed it, so he missed the daily grind of being asked how good he was and what it felt like to be the points leader.

"He didn't get asked the questions that could have made him overconfident on a daily basis," Roush said. "Maybe that allowed him to have greater focus and take care of business. Those kinds of questions could have made him apprehensive and been anti-productive."

It's a funny thing, Roush said. No one gets to pick his time for success.

"Forces beyond the control of anybody decide these things," he said. "When I drove, I didn't win my first race for three years, though I was ready to win after one. And when I did win, it wasn't the race I wanted to win and it wasn't the place I wanted to win.

"Maybe for Kurt to win this championship now is sooner than some people thought he would. Maybe some people don't think he's ready to be champion. But he has the championship, and I can tell you of all the drivers I have had, he has the fiercest, most competitive spirit of anyone I've known. Sometimes to the point of self-destruction."

Perhaps the irony is that Busch's championship, which will be recognized tomorrow night at the annual NASCAR awards banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where the driver will pick up a check for $5.2 million, was all about preservation.

It was about eight top-six finishes in 10 races. It was about three spinouts in the first five of those races in which he avoided hitting anything. The situation made his crew so nervous, one of them told Roush in a weekly meeting: "If he doesn't stop spinning that car, I'm going to have a heart attack."

And in the final race at Homestead, Fla., two weeks ago, Busch literally ran his car so hard he broke a wheel, but managed not to hit the concrete wall on the way to pit road.

All of it has made an impression. Busch is still not the recognizable face Gordon and Earnhardt are - in fact, those two and Johnson are the focus of Fox's television ad campaign for next season. Busch looks more like Tobey Maguire, the star of Spider-Man, than he does a racecar driver, but there is a lot of good to say about his driving talent. And little to say against it, unless it is to acknowledge his aggressiveness, and even that has been toned down.

Being quiet has been a key. No overly aggressive moves. No arrogant displays of confidence.

When Roush moved Busch, now 26, from the NASCAR truck program to Cup racing four years ago, he thought he had a mature driver who was ready to take on the best in stock car racing.

"But he wasn't mature," Roush said. "And he wasn't able to move easily through the other competitors. He's had to work his way through a minefield of contentious situations."

Said Busch: "From the word go, I wanted to win. But after you wreck a few times and hit your head on concrete, you learn to back it down a little bit.

"OK, I won only one race in the final 10 races, but to finish sixth or better in eight of those races was the most daunting task I've ever undertaken. We had the most bonus points for laps led of any team out there. The last 10 races were about consistency, yes, but it was consistency on a bit of a different level."

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