BUSCH: Preseason Thunder Day 17: Homework

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 17: Time for some Las Vegas homework LAS VEGAS (Jan. 28, 2004) -- Racing in one's backyard isn't just racing with the familiar. It's also racing with a comfort zone. That's the circumstance surrounding Kurt...

NASCAR Preseason Thunder Day 17: Time for some Las Vegas homework

LAS VEGAS (Jan. 28, 2004) -- Racing in one's backyard isn't just racing with the familiar. It's also racing with a comfort zone.

That's the circumstance surrounding Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie/ IRWIN Ford) this week. Not only is the Las Vegas native operating in known territory, he's getting some meaningful work done in the process.

As one of many NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and NASCAR Busch Series drivers testing this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch does, in fact, count the race track as part of his larger backyard.

"It's fun to come here because you're familiar with surroundings and you saw the place get built from the ground up," Busch said, "and I grew up racing on the three-eighth-mile (track) just on the back side of the front straightaway. It's a comfortable place and I'd like to do well here. We have done well, but we've never posted results. So it'd be nice to finish with a top-10 finish."

Busch, 25, is beginning his fourth season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, and his third paired with veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig. After a frustrating and sometimes controversial 2003 season, Busch finished 11th in the series standings and is looking to rebound into the NASCAR Top 10.

He and his Roush Racing teammates are part of the large group of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams attending this week's four-day test -- the western edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder, which encompasses the annual preseason tests that began at Daytona International Speedway in early January, and will end after Thursday's afternoon session at Las Vegas.

Like Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), Jeff Burton (No. 99 Roush Racing Ford), Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWALT Power Tools Ford) and Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard/Subway Ford), Busch is testing new tire compounds that will be used at several different tracks, a shorter spoiler and new template adjustments for 2004. He's also learning a new car.

"It's been busy work as well," Busch said. "Just the overall changes with the Ford Taurus, the nose and the tail, and the tires and the spoiler -- you name it. NASCAR changes everything so you have to keep up with it."

This week's test is also unique for Busch because his younger brother Kyle Busch, 18, who will drive Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 Lowe's Chevrolet in the NASCAR Busch Series, is testing on the same track. The 2004 season represents Kyle Busch's first fulltime season of NASCAR competition, and Kurt Busch said he's been inspired by his brother's energy.

He said that he could help Kyle with, "the things that I've gone through in two or three years, and now going into a fourth,"adding that the two do talk during occasional breaks, but try to stick to common ground.

"So with him understanding that and me understanding what he's feeling, at least initially, you can blend the two together," Kurt Busch said. "But setup-wise, it's rare that we'll talk about setups."


* On tap for Thursday ... Media covering Thursday's western edition of NASCAR Preseason Thunder will have the opportunity to visit with two former champions of NASCAR's premier series. The 1988 champion, Bill Elliott (No. 91 Evernham Motorsports Dodge), will be available at noon. The 1999 champion, Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford), is scheduled for 12:20 p.m.

* Behind a different wheel ... Kurt and Kyle Busch aren't the only area natives working this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series star Brendan Gaughan (No. 77 Kodak Dodge), who's making his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series debut with Penske-Jasper Racing this season, is among the drivers testing Wednesday and Thursday at Las Vegas.

Gaughan, 28, who finished fourth in the 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Series standings, has two full seasons of truck competition under his belt. He's also competed in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series. But he understands that the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series represents a big career jump.

"Some days it's easier," Gaughan said of the differences between driving a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series truck and a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series car. "But when you come to a place like Vegas, where you're used to a truck being full throttle in, lift out, don't touch the brake and drive away, you can't get away with that usually in these cars.

"You have to make it work a little better. So it's not easier, but it's definitely the same world. I wasn't playing basketball and now I'm playing football. It's still the same sport."

One aspect that remains unchanged is Gaughan's personality. Outgoing and gregarious, he's a media and fan favorite. He admits his public relations representative, Terry Jarrell, teases him about the many motorsports journalists who have his phone number.

"But that's the way we liked it back then in the Craftsman Trucks," Gaughan said. "So it hasn't really been that much more because I was used to making sure we were available to the media and making sure we were available to the fans. And that's the way I'd like to try to keep it."

And while Gaughan enjoys interacting with fans and media, he knows his career leap has magnified the consequences of verbal missteps. Now, he says, it's not just his family-owned NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team that's at stake, it's also a major sponsor in Kodak, and a very well-known NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race team in Penske-Jasper Racing.

"Now I have to watch what I say a little more," Gaughan said. "It doesn't mean I can't have the same fun I had. It just means I have to be a little bit more careful."

* Tune in to this TV ... Two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers are headed for some television time in Los Angeles after they complete their track time in Las Vegas. First on the air will be two-time and defending Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet), who will be a guest on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live late Wednesday night. The show starts at 12:05 a.m. in most markets.

Twenty-four hours later, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) will be a guest on NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Thursday, Jan. 29. The show starts at 11:35 p.m. in most markets.

* Etc. ... Aside from interviews, Wednesday's lunch break also meant a photo opportunity with the three Las Vegas natives. Kurt Busch, his younger brother Kyle Busch, and Gaughan all posed together in the garage for photographers, and despite the fact all hail from Las Vegas, they've never raced together on the same track.

However, they just might in the season's third NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series event, the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 on March 7 at Las Vegas. Kyle Busch plans to attempt to qualify for seven NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series events this season, and the Las Vegas event is first on his list. If he succeeds, he'll likely join brother Kurt and Gaughan in the field.

Gaughan, who found himself sandwiched between the taller Busch brothers during the photo shoot, joked about the arrangement.

"The only problem standing next to them, I look like the fat guy," Gaughan said. "And I don't like that."


What: NASCAR Preseason Thunder.
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
When: Jan. 26-29.

Track layout: 1.5-mile tri-oval speedway.

Test schedule: Jan. 26-29 -- NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series teams and NASCAR Busch Series teams.


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Drivers Jeff Burton , Bill Elliott , Matt Kenseth , Michael Waltrip , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Brendan Gaughan , Jay Leno , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin