In 2001, when Kyle Busch was 16 and a high school junior, older
brother Kurt sounded a warning to NASCAR competitors.
"You think I'm a pretty good race car driver? Wait until you
see my brother. He's the best driver in the family," said Kurt,
then a rookie with Roush Racing in NASCAR's top stock car series.
Kyle, now 20, has done little in the intervening years to make
people dispute his sibling's words. And Kurt, seven years older,
has proved to be a pretty good driver himself, winning 13 races and
the 2004 Nextel Cup championship.
His kid brother drove six Truck Series races for Jack Roush in 2001, earning a pair of top-10s, before NASCAR decided to enforce an
The younger Busch didn't pout. In 2002, he graduated a year
early from his Las Vegas high school -- with honors -- and spent that
season in the American Speed Association, getting some seasoning
and earning 10 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
He was signed by Hendrick Motorsports in December of that year.
He won a couple of ARCA stock car races and, after turning 18 on
May 2, 2003, the team entered Busch in seven Busch Series events.
In 2004, he went into the development series full-time and won five
races, finishing second in the points.
When two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte decided to cut back to
a part-time schedule in 2005, that left the No. 5 Chevrolet open
for the youngster. Team owner Rick Hendrick put Busch together with
rookie crew chief Alan Gustafson and the two hit it off right away,
with Busch finishing second in Las Vegas in only his third start
The rest of the year has been up and down, with only seven more
top-10 finishes, culminating with last Sunday night's victory at
California Speedway that made Busch the youngest winner in NASCAR's
top series by four days.
The young driver was excited, but showed very little surprise.
"Heck, we could have been here at least five times before
this," Busch said. "The confidence has always been up with
the equipment that we had, with my team owner Rick Hendrick, with
the setups we've been able to run with Alan."
However, going into California, Busch's team had been
struggling, and finishes of 39th, 10th, 33rd, 43rd and 33rd in the
five previous events had long ago eliminated the youngster from any
shot at the season-ending chase for the championship.
He said he spent considerable time last week talking with his
crew about the situation and doing a lot of soul searching. It
"It's one of those deals where the final piece of the puzzle
was so hard to find," Busch said. "Finally, we were just able to
get there and do it. It's unbelievable as far as how the team has
just kept composure on everything."
The only missing ingredient in his first Cup victory celebration
was his friend and mentor, Ricky Hendrick.
The son of the team owner had the foresight to lure Busch away
from Roush. Now, Busch is a big part of the legacy left behind when
24-year-old Ricky Hendrick died last October in the crash of a
Hendrick Motorsports plane that killed 10 people.
Ricky Hendrick, who appeared destined to eventually take over
leadership of the elite team from his father, was the catalyst
behind the decision to put the No. 5 Cup car and the No. 25, with
21-year-old Brian Vickers -- another Ricky Hendrick discovery -- into
the same race shop.
Vickers struggled last year as a rookie, with only four top-10
finishes. But he too appears to be turning the corner toward
stardom with a second-half surge this season. His third-place
finish in California was his fourth top-10 in his last five starts
and his ninth of the season.
Rick Hendrick appeared near tears several times late in Sunday's race and again during the ensuing celebration.
"I think that Ricky had so much confidence in Kyle and the
structure of the 25 and the 5, and to see the two cars run like
that tonight and Kyle to win the race and become the youngest guy,
it's incredible," Hendrick said.
"Kyle has done a super job," the owner added. "He got a lot
of criticism early on that he was too young, but I'm just really
proud of the team and the effort they put forth."
Hendrick said he and his son designed the shop for the 5 and 25 cars.
"When we put the two teams together, we promised them a bonus
when they won their first race, and they worked together as one big
team with two cars," he said. "There's a lot of youth on those
two teams and I didn't know it would come together as quick as it
has this year."
Busch was nervous as the race neared its conclusion, worrying
about making a final pit stop and wondering if he could hold off
veteran Greg Biffle. He needn't have been concerned -- he and his
crew pulled off a great two-tire stop and he easily held off Biffle
after a late caution flag sent the race into overtime.
"I didn't really have a good line in practice or in
qualifying," Busch said. "In the race, I was just running around
there a good part of the race and kind of clicked on something and
I just kept on digging with it and it kept on working and I stayed
"It's just one of those deals where I was able to find that
luck for me and it worked good enough where I was able to keep it
It likely will not be the last time.