Hostile fan, driver reception can#039;t detract from Busch#039;s victory

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 29, 2004

The Associated Press

As boos rained down from the grandstand, Kurt Busch waved and smiled, seemingly oblivious to the hostility. It was minutes before the Nextel Cup finale, and Busch wasn't paying attention to his usual reception from fans.

There was too much to think about, with 400 more miles to race and four drivers close behind him in the chase for the championship.

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Later, after holding off Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to win the closest three-way contest in NASCAR's 56 years, Busch was able to joke about the booing that once made him cry.

''I like to think at our races they're just saying, 'BOOO-SH!''' he said, smiling.

But Busch is well aware he has not been a fan favorite, or even a favorite of his fellow drivers, in his four years racing in NASCAR's top circuit.

He's been punched in the face by Jimmy Spencer for trying to deliberately wreck him, called ''an arrogant punk'' by fellow ''Young Gun'' Kevin Harvick and has drawn little but ire from spectators for his aggressive moves on the track.

But the Kurt Busch who overcame the pressure and adversity on the track in the last 10 races to win the title isn't the same brash 23-year-old who made it to the Cup series in 2001.

Suddenly, the 2000 Rookie of the Year in the truck series was racing with the big boys.

He called his sudden promotion by team owner Jack Roush ''overwhelming.''

''All I knew was to go to the front, race as hard as I could and wrinkle fenders along the way,'' Busch said. ''That's how I was supposed to race, and that was the wrong mind-set.

''Every single one of my mistakes were up at this elite level. Maybe I should have waited another year in trucks, or maybe I should have done a year in the Busch Series.''

It wasn't only downers, though.

Busch won four races in 2002 - including three of the last five - and finished third in the points, showing he could be a contender.

In 2003, he won four more times, but inconsistency pushed Busch back to 11th in the points.

The first three years in the Cup series were tough for the youngster from Las Vegas.

''I was a racer at heart and that's all I wanted to do was race,'' he explained. ''I didn't understand the bigger picture, so the results came quick, but the rough edge were a bit magnified.

''I'm in this position today because we continued to race hard and … we continued to learn hard lessons.''

Roush, who got his first Cup title a year ago from Matt Kenseth, couldn't be prouder of the growth Busch displayed this season.

''Kurt has had some lumps and bumps in his young career here,'' his boss said. ''But he is an incredible quick study. Once he understands how something works, he never forgets it and he won't put it aside.

''If something happens that's not right for him or not good for him, then he makes the commitment to go forward and do it differently.''

Johnson, who lost the title to Busch by only eight points, says the new champion will represent his team and NASCAR well in his new role.

''Kurt is going to do good,'' Johnson said. ''He's a young guy. He's not afraid to be in front of the camera. He's not afraid to speak his mind, so I think the media will appreciate that.

''He showed us all something on the race track. Over this 10-race stretch, he didn't buckle.''

Now, Busch hopes the way he raced and handled himself off the track will make a difference to the fans, too.

''The fans are entitled to root and pull against anybody they want to,'' Busch said. ''But this is definitely a bullet point in my career that will help some of them realize that I'm not such a bad guy, I guess.''

If so, maybe some of them will really be hollering ''BOOO-SH!'' in 2005.