The black pickup
truck slowly pulled onto the track at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the two race
car drivers standing in its bed looked up at the grandstands, 21 fan-filled
stories that stretch into the gray Tennessee sky. Kyle Busch and Ken Schrader
were seconds away from being introduced to the crowd of 160,000 before the
start of the Food City 500 earlier this season, but before the P.A. announcer
boomed 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 the
start-finish line, the then 20-year-old Busch was presented to the crowd in
Thunder Valley. "Starting 20th, driving the number 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet,
Kyle Busch!" Even before his full name was out, thousands of fans were on
their feet booing. Some of the more obviously intoxicated among them hurled
words like rocks in Busch's direction. "You suck, you little s---ass
punk," yelled one middle-aged man who pressed against the fence just 10
feet away. "I hope you die today!"
on," yelled Busch, gesturing to the crowd like a street brawler encouraging
his opponent to take the first swing.
Bring it on.
Busch may as well be shouting these words at everyone in the Nextel Cup garage
because aside from showing over the past two months that he can push his car to
the redline brink of crashing and still control it as well as anyone, Busch has
also proved that he has learned to temper his ruthless determination with a
newfound maturity. That's why he's SI's pick to be hoisting the Nextel Cup in
10 weeks. After finishing second (behind Kevin Harvick) in the Chevy Rock &
Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway last Saturday night, Busch enters
the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, which begins on Sunday at New Hampshire
International Speedway in Loudon, N.H., in fourth place, trailing leader Matt
Kenseth by 15 points. Busch also heads into NASCAR's second season carrying
that most-sought-after commodity in motor racing: momentum. Over the last 10
races Busch has scored more points than any other driver in the series, earning
eight top 10 finishes over that stretch.
"Kyle has got
a good chance to win it all," says Greg Biffle, who finished second in the
standings in 2005 but didn't make the Chase this year. "He's got an
organization behind him [ Hendrick Motorsports] that supplies him with great
equipment and a great team, which always makes it easier on the driver. The 17
car [Kenseth] is probably the favorite, but Kyle could be the big
surprise is how much Busch has changed over the past six months. Back at
Bristol, as he was being pulled around the track in his chariot for the parade
lap and facing down hostile fans, it didn't look as though it bothered him one
whit that he was the least popular driver in NASCAR. But now he's in the quiet
of his backyard in Mooresville, N.C., just north of Charlotte, looking out at
the still waters of Lake Norman, and his voice is cracking with emotion as he
discusses his black-knight status and what it's like to be one of the youngest
drivers in Cup racing history.
manual on how to become a NASCAR driver and how to interact with fans and other
drivers," says Busch as he stands next to the waterfall that spills into
his newly built swimming pool, which sits about 200 yards from the lake's
shoreline. "Everyone thinks I'm cocky and that I'm the same person as my
brother [Kurt, whose on-track aggression and off-track air of superiority have
made him yet another Busch fans love to hate], but no one has gotten to know
me. I've tried to reach out and mingle with other drivers, but I don't have a
lot in common with them. Plus--and this is just fact--older guys don't like it
when you beat them, and I've been doing that lately."
As a rookie last
year Busch finished 20th in the final points standings. But late in the season
his talent flashed like a bolt of lightning: He took the checkered flag at
California Speedway on Sept. 4 to become the youngest driver in the 56-year
history of the Cup series to win a race, and two months later he won again at
Phoenix International Raceway. Still, the one-fingered salutes kept coming.
Busch admits that
he has brought on a lot of the hatred himself. During the 2006 Daytona 500 he
was wildly aggressive, which earned him a penalty from NASCAR, and over the
season's first month he angered many veterans in the garage when he had several
run-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 42
Dodge of Casey Mears. Mears didn't intentionally cause Busch to wreck, but when
Busch emerged from the cockpit of his Chevy, he waited in the infield, fending
off a NASCAR official until Mears cruised by under the caution flag, at which
point 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 probation
for the remainder of the season.
still learning to connect the foot bone to the head bone," says his brother
Kurt, the 2004 Cup champion, who is six years older than Kyle. "It's not
easy to be patient when you're a young kid."
incredibly 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 won
five races this year and qualified for the Chase. "It's hard to figure out
when to give and when to take, and it's difficult to get the respect of the
older drivers. But Kyle will be fine. His skill level is as high as