Monday, March 2, 2009
Kurt Busch not bothered by little brother's fame
LAS VEGAS -- Few would have blamed Kurt Busch if he had skipped Victory Lane. After all, drivers who finish 23rd at their home track don't have much to celebrate.
Yet with a heartfelt smile, he stopped by the party Sunday night to briefly congratulate his kid brother.
If he had even one twinge of jealousy, he didn't show it.
Maybe he saved that emotion for later, for a personal moment away from all the cameras when Busch might have griped, "That should have been me."
No one would think anything less of Busch if he's had those thoughts in the year since his little brother suddenly emerged as NASCAR's newest superstar and knocked him from his reign as the family's top race car driver.
Since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing last season, Kyle Busch has wracked up win after win. He's cemented himself as a serious championship contender and put his career on the fast track to fame and fortune. His name was even mentioned last week as a possible candidate for a planned U.S.-based Formula One team -- a nod that signifies the driver is considered one of the best in the world.
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, has been seemingly stuck in neutral.
His cars aren't as good, his trips to Victory Lane few and far between. Kyle Busch earned 21 trips to the winner's circle last season.
Kurt? Just one.
Still, he's weathered the shifting spotlight with grace, and that didn't change Sunday when a Busch finally won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Growing up in the desert, young drivers didn't dream about NASCAR. That was a sport for the Southeast.
Then came the glistening speedway, built on a dirt lot next to the .34-mile paved Bullring where Kurt Busch and his dad, Tom, competed. Kyle was just a fan in the stands at the time, a little boy watching his big brother race. Sometimes he'd turn away from the action to get a glimpse of the construction on LVMS, which was rapidly growing before their eyes.
Now NASCAR seemed possible. But how? Kurt Busch was a Southwest racer, and he didn't exactly have the means to change that. Plus, his mother wanted him to go to college, and he obliged.
Every serious driver knows schoolwork gets in the way of racing, as does the job needed to pay the racing bills.
But Kurt Busch did it, juggling a miserable freshman year at the University of Arizona with his fledgling career. For cash, he worked at the Las Vegas Valley Water District. Had he never made it to the top, he would have settled nicely into a career in public works.
Only he did make it, scratching and clawing his way into a job for car owner Jack Roush. A chance to drive one of Roush's trucks was the break of a lifetime, and Kurt Busch parlayed it into a full-time Cup ride one year later.
It didn't take long for him to find success, but public acceptance did not come as easily. He tangled with fan favorite Jimmy Spencer, starting a lengthy feud that ultimately turned the fans against him.
Kurt Busch, all of 24 years old, was suddenly Public Enemy No. 1. He was booed during driver introductions, booed when he took the lead on the track and booed during his victory celebrations. He hated it, but there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Back home in Las Vegas, Kyle was making a name for himself on the race track. Of course, it helped that Kurt was already in NASCAR and had alerted the industry to Kyle's existence by once saying "if you think I'm good, you should see my little brother."
Roush wanted both Busch brothers, and locked Kyle into a contract before he even had his driver license. But when NASCAR said he had to be 18 to race in the big leagues, Kyle used the rule to void the Roush deal for a better one with Hendrick Motorsports.
It all came together so easily for Kyle because there were no doors for him to bang on: Kurt had already blown them all open.
At first, the pecking order remained intact. Kurt still won at a decent clip and even grabbed the 2004 Cup championship.
Kyle Busch, meanwhile, slogged through his own set of mistakes and grew into Public Enemy No. 2. He ultimately got himself fired from Hendrick, who recognized his immense talent level but could no longer tolerate Kyle's immaturity.
Kurt Busch had already moved on to Penske Racing by then, leaving Roush under strained circumstances as he tried to replace retiring Rusty Wallace in the famed blue No. 2. But success was hard to find in his new job -- a problem Kyle didn't have when he moved to JGR.
Kyle Busch won a month into his new job, and seemingly every week after that. He became a championship contender, settled quickly into his newfound fame and fortune. He also learned to love the boos that had so tormented Kurt.
Kyle Busch was the top racing brother, and Kurt Busch couldn't compete. But he never made it personal, never publicly complained about being overshadowed by a kid seven years his junior.
Instead, he focused on making his team better. And through three races this season, it seems as if his Penske crew has turned the corner.
Kurt Busch was 10th at Daytona, fifth at California and won the outside pole for Las Vegas. No matter that Kyle Busch won the pole -- Kurt chose to relish in the stat that they were the first brothers since 2000 to sweep the front row, finally giving the Busch's a legitimate chance to win at home.
Had his engine not lost a cylinder, Kurt Busch might have been able to challenge his brother for the win. But there's only so much one can do with a limited amount of horsepower, and Kurt had to nurse his car home to a finish far lower than what he had planned.
He knew it could have been him in Victory Lane. Maybe even should have been him.
But by spending more time fixing his own performance problems than worrying about being overshadowed, Kurt Busch ensured that it will be him in Victory Lane again. And soon.