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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Busch got first shot at Toledo Speedway

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Kurt Busch will start from the 13th spot in this afternoon's Daytona 500. Kurt Busch will start from the 13th spot in this afternoon's Daytona 500.
GLENN SMITH / AP Enlarge

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Kurt Busch has won 11 Nextel Cup races, and he was last year's series champion.

He has won almost $23 million in his five years on the Cup circuit.

Busch also has had confrontations with fellow drivers in which punches were thrown, and he has faced the wrath of 160,000 irate fans showering him with boos as he stood in the winner's circle.

But the toughest moment in racing for Busch was none of the above. It came on an October day in 1999 at Toledo Speedway in front of no fans as Busch raced essentially against himself in pursuit of the career he now owns.

Roush Racing was looking for a driver for its Craftsman Truck Series entry for the following season, and Busch, fresh off a Southwest Series Championship, was one of five drivers in the audition, sarcastically known in racing circles as the "Gong Show."

As Roush executives scribbled notes and scrutinized every detail, the five drivers were evaluated on communication with the crew chief, lap times, and performance in simulated interviews with reporters. For Busch, 21 at the time, the pressure was nearly unbearable.

"It was a nerve-racking situation," Busch said, "probably the toughest I've been in thus far in my racing career."

He was good enough to earn a second tryout the next month at Phoenix International Raceway, and came into that exercise a lot more confident.

"I thought that if I'm being considered for this truck ride, that's great. I was really a lot more laid back the second time, and I was able to get more into a groove and go out there and show them my stuff," Busch said. "That's how I was able to get the job."

In his first race in the truck, Busch was second at Daytona International Speedway. He won rookie-of-the-year honors and was second in the points race, and made the jump to full-time Nextel Cup racing the following year.

Busch, the 2003 IROC champion, won four races that year, and again in 2002. Busch had three wins, 10 top-five finishes, and 21 top-10 finishes last year when he won the Nextel Cup Series championship by taking the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup over the final 10 races.

"It was a great season, and a great experience," Busch said. "It was a little overwhelming at times, and it felt like the weight of the world was on our shoulders. But I had a strong team behind me, and that was the difference."

They always knew the kid could drive. The Las Vegas native had won at every level, and when he got to the big time, Busch found the racing was sometimes easier than everything else.

He was considered brash and cocky by some veteran drivers, and too aggressive by others. At first, Busch did not have a lot of friends in the garage area.

Immediately following a race at Michigan International Speedway in August of 2003, Cup veteran Jimmy Spencer jumped out of his car, pulled the netting down on Busch's car, and Spencer popped the young driver right in the nose.

Spencer claimed he had been bumped by Busch while the race was under caution, and a tape of the radio chatter that circulated later showed that Busch had spelled out his intentions to "take out" Spencer during the race.

When Busch won the following week at Bristol, the 160,000 fans on hand pelted the champion with a monsoon of boos.

"There were some tough times early on, but this is a very competitive business and I've learned a lot along the way, both on and off the track," Busch said. "We're race car drivers, but this business is not all about what happens on the track."

Busch, who might have been victimized by some bad advice and a lack of savvy in dealing with the media, got a crash course in the skills he'd need to be a champion. As his world-class driving talent pushed him to the top of the sport, he worked just as hard at fitting in and changing the perception that he was arrogant or pretentious.

"Kurt Busch is one heck of a race car driver, and I think we've seen him really grow and mature into a great champion in this sport," said Mark Martin, a veteran of 25 years of Cup racing and Busch's Roush Racing teammate.

"These young drivers come up into the Cup Series and they get hit with a lot. All of a sudden, they are in the spotlight and that light is very bright, and can be very critical. We've all had our struggles from time to time, but Kurt has handled it all pretty well. He is a whale of a talent - so much so that I learn things from him every day, and I've been doing this an awfully long time."

Busch, who starts 13th on the inside of Row 7 in today's Daytona 500, said he will keep pushing as hard as he always has, and fulfill his commitment to represent himself, the sport, his sponsors and Roush in the best possible fashion.

"Sure, there's a lot of pressure on us - it comes with the territory," Busch said. "Everything we do, every move we make, every word we speak is all looked at so closely by the fans, the media, everybody. But I'm OK with that. It took some getting used to, but I think I have a much better understanding of it now. I love to race, and that's all part of the racing deal."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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