NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series Drivers Praise 1999 Champion Kurt Busch For 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Title
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Nov. 22, 2004) - Kurt Busch may have won the first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series trophy, but it's not the first NASCAR championship in his trophy case.
Busch, a native of Las Vegas, won the 1999 NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series championship (known then as the Featherlite Southwest Series), before breaking on to NASCAR's national scene in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2000. After competing in Late Models and Legends cars, the teen-aged Busch advanced to the Southwest Series in 1997. In five starts, he posted one top-five finish at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif. Busch raced full-time on the Southwest Series in '98, recording a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and winning the rookie of the year award.
Busch was 21 years old when he won the '99 Southwest Series title, after recording six wins and 11 top-five finishes in Craig Keough's Star Nursery Chevrolet. Busch's seven career Southwest Series victories place him 12th on the series' all-time win list.
In 2000, Busch advanced to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series where he nearly won the championship in his rookie season, finishing second to Greg Biffle after four wins and 13 top-five finishes driving for team owner Jack Roush. Busch also made seven starts in NASCAR's premier series in 2000, setting the stage for his first full season as the driver of the now-famous No. 97 Sharpie / IRWIN Ford Taurus.
Following his historic 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series triumph, his former Southwest Series rivals praised Busch for his championship season.
"I'm ecstatic," said Prunedale, Calif. driver Doug McCoun, who finished third in the point standings during Busch's '99 title run and was a top-10 point finisher in 2004. "Kurt's championship reflects on everybody that used to race with us. I'm just really proud of him. I hope that he always stays on top of his game and stays a contender. I think he has what it takes to do that."
2004 Southwest Series champion Jim Pettit II, also of Prunedale, says Busch's title-winning performance shows NASCAR's strength in the Southwest.
"I'm happy for him, because Kurt is 'one of our guys'," said Pettit. "I'm excited that a guy from our series came out there and did such a great job - and represented all of us."
"When it came down to pressure time, Kurt did what he had to do. I think it's great that, as a Southwest Series driver, I've been able to run against one of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series champions."
In addition to Busch, the Southwest Series has produced several notable drivers who have graduated on to successful careers in NASCAR's national series, including Kevin Harvick (1995 Southwest Series rookie of the year, 2001 NASCAR Busch Series champion, four NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series wins), Ron Hornaday Jr. (1992-93 Southwest Series champion, 1996 and 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion) and Matt Crafton (2000 Southwest Series champion, finished fifth in 2004 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series standings).
Busch won the inaugural "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" with a fifth-place finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 21. Busch won the title by eight points over runner-up Jimmie Johnson, who finished second in the event, and Jeff Gordon who finished third in the race and trailed by 16 points. It was the tightest point battle in the history of NASCAR's premier series.
At the age of 26 years, 3 months, 17 days, Busch is the third youngest driver to win the title. Only 1950 champion Bill Rexford at 23 years, 8 months, 17 days and 1994 champion Jeff Gordon at 24 years, 3 months, 27 days were younger.