The black pickuptruck slowly pulled onto the track at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the two racecar drivers standing in its bed looked up at the grandstands, 21 fan-filledstories that stretch into the gray Tennessee sky. Kyle Busch and Ken Schraderwere seconds away from being introduced to the crowd of 160,000 before thestart of the Food City 500 earlier this season, but before the P.A. announcerboomed out Busch's name, the 50-year-old Schrader pulled a veteran's move.
"I better stand behind you," Schrader said to Busch. "No offense,Kyle, but I really don't want to get shot today."
Moments later, as the Chevy Colorado carrying the drivers crossed thestart-finish line, the then 20-year-old Busch was presented to the crowd inThunder Valley. "Starting 20th, driving the number 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet,Kyle Busch!" Even before his full name was out, thousands of fans were ontheir feet booing. Some of the more obviously intoxicated among them hurledwords like rocks in Busch's direction. "You suck, you little s---asspunk," yelled one middle-aged man who pressed against the fence just 10feet away. "I hope you die today!"
"Bring iton," yelled Busch, gesturing to the crowd like a street brawler encouraginghis opponent to take the first swing.
Bring it on.Busch may as well be shouting these words at everyone in the Nextel Cup garagebecause aside from showing over the past two months that he can push his car tothe redline brink of crashing and still control it as well as anyone, Busch hasalso proved that he has learned to temper his ruthless determination with anewfound maturity. That's why he's SI's pick to be hoisting the Nextel Cup in10 weeks. After finishing second (behind Kevin Harvick) in the Chevy Rock &Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night, Busch entersthe 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, which begins on Sunday at New HampshireInternational Speedway in Loudon, N.H., in fourth place, trailing leader MattKenseth by 15 points. Busch also heads into NASCAR's second season carryingthat most-sought-after commodity in motor racing: momentum. Over the last 10races Busch has scored more points than any other driver in the series, earningeight top 10 finishes over that stretch.
"Kyle has gota good chance to win it all," says Greg Biffle, who finished second in thestandings in 2005 but didn't make the Chase this year. "He's got anorganization behind him [Hendrick Motorsports] that supplies him with greatequipment and a great team, which always makes it easier on the driver. The 17car [Kenseth] is probably the favorite, but Kyle could be the bigsurprise."
The biggestsurprise is how much Busch has changed over the past six months. Back atBristol, as he was being pulled around the track in his chariot for the paradelap and facing down hostile fans, it didn't look as though it bothered him onewhit that he was the least popular driver in NASCAR. But now he's in the quietof his backyard in Mooresville, N.C., just north of Charlotte, looking out atthe still waters of Lake Norman, and his voice is cracking with emotion as hediscusses his black-knight status and what it's like to be one of the youngestdrivers in Cup racing history.
"There's nomanual on how to become a NASCAR driver and how to interact with fans and otherdrivers," says Busch as he stands next to the waterfall that spills intohis newly built swimming pool, which sits about 200 yards from the lake'sshoreline. "Everyone thinks I'm cocky and that I'm the same person as mybrother [Kurt, whose on-track aggression and off-track air of superiority havemade him yet another Busch fans love to hate], but no one has gotten to knowme. I've tried to reach out and mingle with other drivers, but I don't have alot in common with them. Plus--and this is just fact--older guys don't like itwhen you beat them, and I've been doing that lately."
As a rookie lastyear Busch finished 20th in the final points standings. But late in the seasonhis talent flashed like a bolt of lightning: He took the checkered flag atCalifornia Speedway on Sept. 4 to become the youngest driver in the 56-yearhistory of the Cup series to win a race, and two months later he won again atPhoenix International Raceway. Still, the one-fingered salutes kept coming.
Busch admits thathe has brought on a lot of the hatred himself. During the 2006 Daytona 500 hewas wildly aggressive, which earned him a penalty from NASCAR, and over theseason's first month he angered many veterans in the garage when he had severalrun-ins with reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart, who said that Busch drove like"a bird with no feathers." Then in May at the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord,N.C., Busch plowed into the wall after he was clipped by the spinning number 42Dodge of Casey Mears. Mears didn't intentionally cause Busch to wreck, but whenBusch emerged from the cockpit of his Chevy, he waited in the infield, fendingoff a NASCAR official until Mears cruised by under the caution flag, at whichpoint Busch hurled his head-and-neck safety device at Mears's car. That stunt,which made Busch look like a petulant kid in a sandbox spat, drew a fine of$50,000 and 25 championship points from NASCAR, which placed him on probationfor the remainder of the season.
"Kyle isstill learning to connect the foot bone to the head bone," says his brotherKurt, the 2004 Cup champion, who is six years older than Kyle. "It's noteasy to be patient when you're a young kid."
"It'sincredibly hard to be a young driver out here with all these veterans,"says 26-year-old Kasey Kahne, who, in his third season on the circuit, has wonfive races this year and qualified for the Chase. "It's hard to figure outwhen to give and when to take, and it's difficult to get the respect of theolder drivers. But Kyle will be fine. His skill level is as high asanyone's."
If you were goingto design a laboratory in which to build the ultimate race car driver, it mightlook something like the 14-stall garage that Tom Busch built behind his westLas Vegas home 15 years ago. Under the supervision of Tom, an auto mechanic whoused to race on the weekends at short tracks across Nevada, six-year-old Kylebegan helping his father build stock cars from parts they scavenged fromjunkyards. "In our neighborhood there really weren't any other kids forKurt and Kyle to play with, so they spent almost all of their time working onthe cars," says Tom.
Three yearslater, when Kurt began racing at The Bullring in Las Vegas, little Kyle wouldstand in the highest row of the grandstands acting as Kurt's spotter whilevideotaping the action. After races the three Busch men would retreat to thesmall TV room off their garage. There Tom would break down the races for hisboys, pointing out things like the quickest line around the track and whatadjustments should have been made to the car to improve its handling.
When Kyle begandriving at age 13, Tom mounted a camera in Kyle's Legend Car (essentially aminiature 1930s-style Ford) to capture a driver's-seat perspective. After everyrace Kyle and Tom would beeline it to the VCR and go over every lap in detail,often staying up deep into the night, to the dismay of Kyle's mother, Gaye. ForKyle, a self-described loner, this was his driver's ed--and where he foundhappiness. "Kyle definitely has got the coach's son syndrome," saysAlan Gustafson, Busch's crew chief. "He's been subjected to the X's and O'sof the sport since Day One."
By age 15 Kylehad won 65 Legend Car events. He consistently beat drivers who were two decadeshis senior because he had an uncanny ability to diagnose problems in the car'ssetup and articulate from the driver's seat precisely what adjustments shouldbe made during pit stops. "What makes Kyle so good is his rear end,"says Kurt. "He can feel what's going on with the car like no oneelse."
In 2003--as Kurtwas being flogged by race fans across the country because of his feud withveteran driver Jimmy Spencer (Kurt called Spencer a "decrepit oldhas-been" after the two had a couple of on-track run-ins), which culminatedwith Spencer's punching Kurt in the nose--Kyle signed a two-year contract, withan option for an extension, with Hendrick Motorsports. He made his first startin the Busch Series at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., that May. Whenhe was announced to the crowd in the prerace ceremony, Kyle was stunned by theresponse: a thunderclap of boos. "Probably not one person in the crowd hadever even seen me before, and I got booed simply because of my last name,"says Kyle. "Right then, I knew I had an uphill battle on my hands."
"The fanshave been really hard on Kyle," says Rick Hendrick, the owner of HendrickMotorsports, whose drivers have won seven of the 26 races this season."I've probably given more fatherly advice to Kyle than to any driver I'veever had because he's still learning everything that goes into being a Cupdriver: dealing with the media, the fans and the other drivers. But when heputs that helmet on, he can find the edge of how fast the car will go in ahurry, and that's just a God-given gift."
Hendrick, sittingin the basement of his stately south Charlotte home, pauses as he glances overat the five Cup championship trophies he stores down here. Then, grinning likea man who's privy to a wonderful secret, he adds, "Before he's done in thissport, Kyle is going to have multiple titles."
Over the next 21/2 months Busch plans to follow the same script that his brother used in 2004,when Kurt entered the first edition of the Chase in seventh place and thenreeled off nine top 10 finishes in the 10-race playoff to seize the title. Oneof the keys to winning the championship is getting off to a quick start, whichKurt did when he won at Louden in the Chase's first race in '04. Kyle took thecheckered flag at Louden in July, and considering that the summer winner in NewHampshire has gone on to take the checkered flag in the September race in twoof the last three years, Kyle will head north this week as the favorite to winthe Sylvania 300 on Sunday.
If Busch doesbecome the youngest driver ever to win the Cup championship, when the seasonconcludes with the Ford 400 on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway, itwill largely be due to a meeting he had soon after his equipment-throwingtantrum at Loew's. Over lunch a few days after the incident Busch had a longtalk with Rick Hendrick and Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR. The threediscussed fishing, racing and what it takes to be happy in life. Buschlistened, and he hasn't been involved in a single scrap in the 3 1/2 monthssince his racing life came to a crossroads and he made the right turn.
"After thatlunch I did a lot of thinking and realized that there's more to life thanwinning races," said Busch as he sat in the back of his hauler at Richmondlast Saturday afternoon. "And I came away understanding that it's better tohave friends out there on the track than enemies. In the Chase that might nothelp me win the battles each weekend, but maybe it'll help me win the war atthe end.... Still, I'll get after it when I need to."
A few hours aftersaying this, Busch bolts out of his hauler in the garage area and heads to thestart-finish line for drivers' introductions. He climbs a staircase onto astage and waits behind a curtain. "Starting 12th, from Las Vegas, Nevada..." Busch peeks around the curtain, looking at the crowd with dartingeyes."... Kyle Busch!" The driver strides confidently into thespotlight, as if he's oblivious to the eruption of noise from the grandstands,looking very much like a mature young man who's ready to chase achampionship.
THE TOP 10
Here's Lars Anderson's prediction for how the finalstandings will look after the checkered flag waves on the Chase for the NextelCup at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.
1. KYLE BUSCH (Regular-season standing: fourth)
The aggressive Busch could be brilliant--or a bust--inthe Chase. If he can avoid the on-track skirmishes that have been a recurringproblem in his career, he'll steal the title.
2. MATT KENSETH (First)
The '03 champ won two of the last four races. If hecan muster top 10s at Phoenix (Nov. 12) and Homestead (Nov. 19)--his weakestChase tracks--he'll be hard to beat.
3. JIMMIE JOHNSON (Second)
After dominating the first half of '06, Johnson hasfaded; he has only one top 10 in the last five races--which bodes ill forJohnson, who's still looking for his first title.
4. JEFF GORDON (Ninth)
After only four top 10s in the year's first 14 races,Gordon reeled off three consecutive top fives before Richmond. The four-timechamp excels on all types of tracks.
5. KEVIN HARVICK (Third)
The last two years Harvick was 14th in the standingsat this point; now he's the first Richard Childress Racing driver to make theChase--and is on a roll after a win at Richmond.
6. KASEY KAHNE (10th)
A five-time winner in '06, Kahne should shine in theChase. He's the series' top driver on 1.5-mile tracks, and five of the final 10races take place on intermediate ovals.
7. DALE EARNHARDT JR. (Sixth)
After missing the '05 Chase, Little E has gained speedas the season has progressed. A short-track star, Junior should be strong atMartinsville on Oct. 22.
8. DENNY HAMLIN (Fifth)
With seven straight top 10s, Hamlin is the firstrookie to advance to NASCAR's second season. Over the last 10 races Hamlin hasscored the fourth-most points.
9. JEFF BURTON (Eighth)
Burton hasn't won a race in 174 starts, but no drivermakes fewer mistakes than the 13-year veteran. His average '06 finish on1.5-mile tracks is an impressive 9.2.
10. MARK MARTIN (Seventh)
Uncharacteristically inconsistent over the past twomonths, Martin, 47 and a four-time Cup runner-up, is relieved to have one moreshot at winning his first title.
ON THE OUTS
Some big names--including the defending champ--won'tbe racing for a Cup title this year. But that doesn't mean they'll be slowingdown
Less than¬†five minutes into the first practicesession at Richmond International Raceway last Friday, Tony Stewart's quest torepeat as Nextel Cup champion effectively ended in a cloud of smoke when heslammed into the wall in Turn 2. Forced to drive his backup car in the ChevyRock & Roll 400, Stewart was slow in qualifying (he started 40th), slowearly in the race (he was lapped) and slow late (he finished 18th). Thatlackluster performance left Stewart 17 points shy of advancing to the Chase."It wasn't one night that got us in this situation," said Stewart afterthe race. "It took 26 weeks to get here. We did the best we could; we justcame up short."
Stewart's shortcoming was part of a debate in the Cupgarage last weekend on how to tweak the playoff format. One proposal was thatthe defending champion should be guaranteed a slot in the Chase. The otherpopular suggestion was that the driver with the most wins through the first 26races of the season gets a Chase berth, regardless of where he stands in thepoints. NASCAR officials are considering both ideas for 2007, as well as givinga much-needed tune-up to the way points are distributed for each race. As itstands, the winner receives just 10 more points than the second-place driver.If the winner were to be awarded, say, a 30-point bonus, then a driver such asKasey Kahne, who has won more races this year (five) than anyone else, wouldn'thave to sweat out earning a Chase spot, as he did on Saturday night, when hefinished third to make the Chase by 16 points.
Stewart, Kahne's closest friend in the series, willuse the Chase as a 10-week test session for 2007, a strategy that helped bothDale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon find speed during NASCAR's playoff lastseason. Stewart's team has also struggled with its pit stops recently, whichmeans some fresh blood could be infused into the pit crew.
The other high-profile drivers not in the Chase--GregBiffle, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Elliott Sadler--will also tryto get a head start on 2007 over the next 2 1/2 months. For some it may be morea matter simply of getting Lady Luck back into the driver's seat. Take Edwards,whose speeds on the practice charts have been near the top virtually everyweek. His season has been undone by untimely flat tires and dustups with carsthat wrecked directly in front of him.
"If you're not in the Chase, you still want to winraces, but you can try different things out with your aero package and yourshocks," says Biffle. "Basically, you do whatever you can to get backinto the Chase in 2007."
"Kyle is still learning to connect the foot boneTO THE HEAD BONE," says older brother Kurt.
ALL REVVED UP
For coverage of the Chase from Lars Anderson, including insiders, powerrankings and race predictions, go to SI.com/nascar
Photograph by Nigel Kinrade
LEADING MAN Busch (5 and inset), who has run up front all season, is sitting pretty heading into NASCAR's playoffs.
[See Caption Above]
BUSCH LEAGUERSKyle (winning at Loudon and above, right) and Kurt are the drivers fans love tohate.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
RUSTY JARRETT/GETTY IMAGES
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
SPUN AND DONE Stewart (right) and Edwards (99) will now turn their focus to 2007.
[See Caption Above]