Kurt Busch’s career took turn for the better at Sonoma

SONOMA, Calif. — Stock-car racing has long since ceased being a Southern Thing, with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series featuring strong representation from the West Coast.

And many of the drivers entered in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 have competed at Sonoma Raceway long before making it to NASCAR’s top division.

Take, for example, 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, a Las Vegas native.

Busch, who earlier this year won the Daytona 500 in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, got one of his first big breaks right here in Northern California.

In 1998, when he was just 19 years old and a rookie in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour, Busch finished third in his first road race, the Yahoo! Sports 200 at Sonoma.

A year later at Sonoma, Busch qualified third, led 31 of the 64 laps and won his first road-course race, one of six victories he posted en route to the 1999 Southwest Tour championship.

Busch’s skills behind the wheel earned him a tryout in Ford team owner Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” driver search, which he won. Busch parlayed that into a ride in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Roush in 2000, finishing second in the series championship and winning four races.

The truck performance, in turn, earned Busch a full-time Cup ride with Roush in a Cup car for 2001. It was quite a rapid career advancement, and it all kicked off here in Sonoma.

“That was my first win in a stock car at a road course,” Busch said of his 1999 victory here.

“I’ve always believed that Saturday race was the most important stage to stand on because there wasn’t a Truck Series race or an XFINITY Series race,” Busch said. “Back in the day, the Southwest Tour race was the support race, and my race was live on (television). I’ve always thought Sonoma helped springboard me into the spotlight, and I’m very thankful for that chance.”