ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - It took Kurt Busch a year and a half to figure out how to handle the pressure of being a driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
Jimmie Johnson figured it out even quicker. The youth movement in racing no longer is the way of the future; it's become part of the routine.
And, apparently, it's here to stay.
Busch, 24, finished third in the Winston Cup Series point standings a year ago in just his second year on the circuit. Johnson, 27, was fifth in his rookie campaign.
Their finishes in Sunday's Daytona 500 indicate their successes a year ago may not have been flukes. Busch finished second; Johnson was third. It was just like old times.
Johnson won three races last year; Busch won four, including a run of three of the last five. Both said winning helped ease the pressure that often consumes other young drivers.
"When you are winning races, there's a lot of pressure that's put on you," Busch said. "You get pulled in different directions - media, sponsors, owner - but really it was about having a good time and a lot of fun. With the season ending the way it did, if we continued on, it would have been a great test to see what the team was capable of doing."
During the off-season, Busch's team anxiously awaited the Daytona 500, knowing it usually isn't one of their better races. A Ford hadn't won at either of the two restrictor-plate venues - the Daytona International Speedway or the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway - in the nine previous races leading up to the season-opener. The plan was to salvage the best finish possible at Daytona, and then shift into attack mode Sunday at the North Carolina Speedway.
Busch's idea of salvaging a finish in the Daytona 500 almost meant victory. The same for Johnson.
"It's a bittersweet finish for us obviously," Busch said. "We do most of our work under the radar, quietly. That's the way we have to negotiate around these plate races. It's difficult in many aspects. We're elated to bring a Ford into second place.
"Everybody shows up to Daytona with a clean slate. Yeah, we did have some momentum from last year. The guys were really pumped up about getting started."
Once Busch learned how to win, he made it look easy. And if Daytona was supposed to be a problem, it poses an important question for races to come: Can he be stopped?
"I think the biggest factor in our success at the end of the year was we were back in 12th place in points midway through the year after a couple of bad races," he said. "That was where we didn't think we belonged. We thought we belonged somewhere in the top-10. We kept giving each race our best effort and we knew if we slipped we would end up 8th or 9th. We just kept applying pressure, making sure we did not make mistakes to beat ourselves."
Part of Busch's success, he said, was learning how to handle the distractions away from his racecar.
" There's different types of tensions that pull you in directions," he said. "There are things I haven't seen before, and I am not familiar with; you have to roll with the punches. Being a rookie in Winston Cup racing (in 2001) is probably the most treacherous, the most mind-boggling situation that one individual can go through. So this is a new element where you have to continue to strive forward and to be one of the forces to reckon with in Winston Cup. There's a lot of pressure that comes with it."
Johnson has the same mindset. The learning curve a year ago lasted only a few races. He won in his 10th career start and was a constant factor in the point standings until the final three races. Once he understood what to expect, he didn't back down. Once he got up to speed, it came easy.
"This year we're calm and confident," Johnson said. "We know we have the ability to compete for wins and championships and it's a matter of getting it to work. So it's a lot better state of mind for us this year than it was last year."
With the uncertainty that comes with restrictor-plate racing out of the way, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson now can channel their youthful exuberance into the kind of finishes they - and everyone else - have come to expect."
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