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Kurt Busch hoping to build momentum at Bristol

Kurt Busch spent years telling anyone who would listen that younger brother Kyle was the real talent in the family.

“I always said, ‘Hey, you think I am doing good, you should see my little brother,'” the elder Busch said.

For a while, it appeared the conceit was just one sibling sticking up for another, particularly as Kurt Busch became one of NASCAR’s young guns, winning the 2004 season championship and developing a reputation as one of the circuit’s elite drivers.

Four years later, that proclamation of his brother’s precocious talent has proved prophetic. NASCAR’s newest villain has eight Sprint Cup wins this season for Joe Gibbs Racing and will enter the Chase for the championship next month as the overwhelming favorite.

“You can see it coming and I am glad he’s transitioned well into his new team,” Kurt Busch said. “The next thing I am waiting for is for him to remember who helped him get to this point and give some of that information my way.”

Kurt Busch’s Penske Racing team could use the help.

Though he pushed teammate Ryan Newman to victory in the Daytona 500 and picked up a win at New Hampshire in June, Kurt Busch is 19th in the standings heading into Saturday night’s race at Bristol and will spend the postseason watching his brother try to make a run at history.

“I attribute it all to the (Car of Tomorrow),” Busch said. “One day I might call it a race car, but I keep calling it a COT because we just haven’t quite turned the corner, literally, with this new car and trying to get it to handle better.”

Busch has spent most weekends this year battling the boxier car for control, and losing. Considered one of NASCAR’s most consistent performers, Busch is on pace for his worst season since 2001. He has just five top-10s this year and admits it may be 2009 before his team figures it out.

“It’s not the normal championship-type effort, but you are going to have your good years and your bad years and you have to balance them all out,” he said.

Busch is hoping a strong finish could generate some momentum heading into next year. Bristol is as good a place as any for a return to from. He’s won there five times during his career, nimbly sifting his way around the cramped oval that sometimes resembles bumper cars more than actual racing.

“The mind-set for me at Bristol has always been to protect the race car and get toward the end and then you really start to race these guys,” he said. “Sometimes you sneak up on them and don’t press the ‘Go’ pedal until it’s 200 laps to go.”

Too often this year, the ‘Go’ pedal hasn’t taken Busch anywhere. It’s made for a difficult season both on the track and in the pits. Busch’s team is using the final third of the season to experiment with different chassis setups hoping to unlock the formula that his little brother’s crew has mastered so easily. Part of the process was a rededication in the garage.

“Once everyone admitted it to themselves that we needed to try a bit harder, that was the first step,” Busch said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes right now.”

Including finding a replacement for Newman, who is leaving at the end of the season to join Tony Stewart’s upstart program in 2009. Busch has been assisting team owner Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric during the interview process, but is unsure who will join him and Sam Hornish Jr. next year.

Whoever gets the job will be tasked with helping Penske find the success that has come so easily for the racing icon’s open-wheel operation.

“It’s a continued effort to find little things here and there,” Busch said. “I don’t think it’s going to be one little thing that puts us back in the mix. It’s hard work, commitment, and the belief that we can get it done and get back to the top.”

Until then he’ll lend an ear as his little brother tries to hold off the rest of the Chase field. Though Kurt Busch won his title before NASCAR switched to the Chase format, he doesn’t think things have changed much.

“My approach was simple when we won the championship, it was consistency,” the 30-year-old said. “We had nine finishes in the top 10 in the last 10 races. And even though it’s a shorter, quick run in the last 10 races, it’s the same mentality and philosophy for 36 races and that is just go out there and get the best finish you can.”

Part of it is also knowing when to race and when to ease up, a notion Kurt admits could be a problem for Kyle, who never met a dare he didn’t like to take.

“You might want to take a few less risks, but that’s tough for a 24-year-old to digest,” Kurt said.

Not that he’s worried. His little brother will do fine. Kurt’s more concerned about making sure he gets a chance to give him some company in the Chase next year.