Friday March 6th, 2009

It took just 11 words to put Kyle Busch on the radar of every NASCAR team owner, 11 words that were uttered by his older brother back in 2002, 11 words that at the time sounded like nothing more than family smugness. "If you think I'm good," Kurt Busch told reporters back in '02 when he finished third in the final standings, "you should see my little brother."

Back then the younger Busch was just 16, still in high school in Las Vegas and competing in the ASA series. But his older brother already knew what made Kyle so special: "It's his ass," Kurt told me back then. "He can feel what's going on in the car better than anyone I've ever been around, and that comes from his rear end. He's then able to communicate to his team what he's feeling and together they make the right adjustments to make the car go faster."

Over the last year, Kyle, 23, has won nine Cup races; Kurt, 30, just one. Last Sunday Kyle took the checkered flag in his hometown and one of the first people to congratulate him in Victory Lane was his older brother. As Kurt, the 2004 Cup champion, gave his brother a high-five, it was as if the prophecy of those 11 words that flew from his lips seven years ago had come to life: "If you think I'm good, you should see my little brother."

But this season, I think Kurt will make plenty of noise himself. For the first time since he moved to Penske Racing in 2006, Kurt appears to have a legitimate chance to be a serious player in the Chase. When he failed to qualify for the Chase last year, Kurt and his crew chief, Pat Tryson, used the final 10 races as test sessions for 2009, experimenting with exotic setups and Dodge's new engine package in the hope of finding speed. It worked: Busch finished third at Lowe's Motor Speedway last October and then, in the penultimate race of '08, came in second at Phoenix.

"When you're not in the Chase running for the championship, you really get to think out of the box," Kurt Busch said. "Right now it's too early to talk championship, but we're trying ... to use our decisions from last year to help us."

So far, so good. Kurt had strong runs at Daytona (he finished 10th) and Fontana (fifth), and he started on the front row in Vegas but wound up 23rd. Currently seventh in the points, Kurt is poised to make a charge up the standings over the next month. The next three tracks on the schedule -- Atlanta, Bristol, and Martinsville -- are some of his strongest. He hasn't finished worse than 11th in his last four starts in Atlanta, and he has a combined six career wins at Bristol and Martinsville.

But the true test for this team will come on April 5 at Texas, a 1.5-mile track that has similar characteristics to several of the tracks in the Chase. "Our biggest effort this offseason has been to improve our effort on the 1.5-milers," Busch said back in January. "If we're going to do anything this year, we simply have to run better on the intermediate-length tracks. That's been our biggest problem recently, but I think we've finally started to hit on some things and I've got more confidence heading into these tracks than I've had in some time."

Will Kurt emerge from his little brother's shadow this season? I think he will at some point, perhaps as early as this Sunday in Atlanta. He's my pick to take the checkers.

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