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For Busch, Truck Series ride feels like old times

August 17, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



For Busch, Truck Series ride feels like old times

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Kurt Busch swung his legs through the window opening, and then settled himself down into the seat of the black and yellow Camping World Truck Series entry before opening practice on Friday morning. It was an unusual sight -- and at the same time, the most natural thing in the world.

For the first time in more than a decade, the former Sprint Cup champion is back on the circuit that fueled his development at NASCAR's national level. With the recent release of Jason Leffler, Kyle Busch Motorsports needed someone to evaluate the status of the organization's No. 18 truck -- which led the team owner to call on his older brother, who occasionally pilots a KBM Nationwide Series entry in addition to his regular duties behind the wheel of the No. 51 Sprint Cup car.

"When I walked through their hauler to say hello, it was like this guy, this guy, that guy -- holy smoke, it's like a class reunion."

--KURT BUSCH

Brian Scott will drive the No. 18 truck next weekend at Bristol, and in three other upcoming events this season. Drew Herring will be behind the wheel next month at Iowa. But this weekend at Michigan International Speedway the vehicle will belong to Kurt Busch, who broke through in NASCAR with a four-victory campaign on the Truck tour in 2000, and on Saturday will make his first appearance in the series since he finished fifth in an event on the Milwaukee Mile in June of 2001.

"I came in right when the garage opened, just to smell it, to see it, to feel it," Busch said before practice on Friday morning. "Then you run into guys like [Ron] Hornaday, and Chris Carrier, crew chief on Nelson Piquet's truck, and I know him. When I walked through their hauler to say hello, it was like this guy, this guy, that guy -- holy smoke, it's like a class reunion."

In some ways it feels like a very long time since he's been in the Truck garage, Busch said, and in others it doesn't. Friday he shook hands with series director Wayne Auton, who's held that position since Busch first broke in as a 21-year-old from Las Vegas. "He and I, the relationship we had early on, it was like he was the father figure of the series," Busch remembered. "It was weird going over there 11 years later on. I told him, 'Now, I'm kind of the veteran with you.'"

And that veteran experience is what KBM is looking for in an effort to inch the No. 18 truck closer to Victory Lane. Leffler finished in the top 10 six times in his nine starts in the vehicle, but wasn't able to replicate the success his owner had enjoyed behind the wheel. So in comes Kurt Busch, whose job is to evaluate the program and help find where it can improve. Other Truck races are a possibility, he said, although there are no plans for him beyond Michigan right now.

"Just talking with the guys on the Nationwide team and knowing Kurt's past, he's got a lot of feel for the race car, so we're going to work on a few things with that," crew chief Eric Phillips said. "Every driver feels different stuff, so we're just figuring out where we're at here and trying to use him the best we can. Those Cup guys have so much experience and knowledge that they feel things and see things that some guys miss. It's not that they're any better or worse, it's just they have a lot more time."

Although the trucks have changed the least of the vehicles on NASCAR's national level over the past decade, there will still be things to get readjusted to after being outside of the series for so long. "It's a vehicle, it says NASCAR on it, and there are four rubber tires that hit the race track, and away we go," Busch said. "You've got to get used to the tapered spacer and the increased aerodynamics, and then we have to get into what we have to have happen this weekend. So I'll see how the crew guys work, how we make changes, how we're able to find speed, what the engine feels like, what the balance feels like on the truck. There are a bunch of things I have to filter through."

Whatever learning curve there is, though, should be aided by the 2-mile Michigan track. "I don't think there will be much here at Michigan, because he'll be flat-out basically the whole time," Phillips said. "He should be pretty close to that. If we were going to Martinsville or even Pocono where you have to lift, and there are braking points and picking up the accelerator is different -- a short-track race would probably be a lot more different. Here, I don't think it will make that much of a difference."

This weekend is not unlike Busch's last Truck outing, when Jack Roush had the then-Cup rookie step into the No. 99 truck at Milwaukee in place of Nathan Haseleu. "That race is very similar to this race, in that the owner brought me back to the program to evaluate it," Busch said. "That's what Jack Roush wanted me to do. I was a rookie in the Cup Series, and ... they wanted me to go to Milwaukee on my off weekend from Cup and drive the truck to evaluate the program. That's again where we are right now, because Kyle wanted me to come in and evaluate the program."

Although he hasn't competed in the series in more than a decade, Busch will always be closely associated with the Truck Series, given that it was his spectacular single full-time season on the circuit which launched him into the Cup ranks. It all happened very fast -- the former Southwest tour driver finished second in his debut at Daytona, and then second a few weeks later in Bakersfield, Calif., and by mid-summer had won back-to-back events. He did so well that he moved directly into Cup the following season, bypassing the usual step in the now-Nationwide ranks.

"It was like, 'Wow, this is a shoe that fits perfectly,'" Busch remembered. "It fit so well, and I was able to feel the confidence, that Jack said, 'Let's go Cup racing.' Whoa. Really? It was just that quick. I was in late models running the Southwest tour in November of '99, and I'm in a Cup car September of 2000. So that was only 10 months. That's how quick everything went. I didn't even have time to stop and smell the roses. It was just like a rollercoaster on that ladder going up before the first drop. I was going straight to the sky."

Eventually, the drop came. Although Busch continued to experience on-track success, winning three races in his rookie Cup campaign and then the championship three seasons later, he's at times struggled with the off-track elements of competing in the sport's brightest spotlight. Might it have been different had his development been more gradual? "As a driver, could I step back and do it over again? No," he said. "But would I advise to progress slower? Yes. Two years Trucks, two years Nationwide, and then if you're still able to produce those results, then you have a shot at a Cup ride. But if you're not producing those results, you don't have a shot at it."

But Busch was producing such impressive results, it would have been difficult to hold him back. Even so, he looks at what he's been through, and wonders if his rapid progression has led some teams to take it slower with their younger drivers. The racing, he had covered. Other parts of it were a struggle, which makes this return to the Camping World Truck Series feel like a trip back into more carefree days.

The racing "is one element of it," Busch said of competing at NASCAR's top level. "Then there's the P.R. element, then there's the sponsor element, then there's the seniority, the development as a driver, the ability to digest more information. I was just so quickly removed from late models, and then boom -- here I am in Cup. The Trucks were great. I loved it, and I wish I could have spent more time there."