When Kurt Busch was growing up, Las Vegas just seemed like home.
"I played Little League baseball for 10 years and rode my bike to school," the driver of the No. 2 Dodges for Penske Racing said. "My buddies and I rode up and down The Strip in my Volkswagen bug, just like Main Street USA. There was just a lot more neon around."
Because it was the only hometown he knew, Busch said Las Vegas didn't seem like anything unusual in those days.
"I thought they had the same things in Columbus, Ohio, or Oxford, Maine," he said. "But once I started traveling around, I made me miss how '24/7' Las Vegas is. You're always on the go, and you have to keep digging or you can get swallowed up."
That's sort of how things were, too, when Busch arrived in Nextel Cup on an accelerated schedule.
After just one full season in the NASCAR Truck Series in 2000, Busch found himself in the sport's top series in a Roush Racing Ford. By the end of his fourth full season in 2004, Busch already had 11 career Cup victories and a championship on his resume.
Today, he's two races into his second season with the Penske team and trying to work his way back onto the short list of elite drivers after winning only once, last March at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, since leaving Roush.
Last year was not the kind of year Busch would have scripted for himself, as he finished 16th in the points after missing the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
It was, however, his first year with a new team and his first year working with crew chief Roy McCauley.
Busch led for 95 laps in the Daytona 500, far more than anyone else, but finished 41st after being in a wreck with Tony Stewart. He then finished a solid seventh at California, moving him up to 19th in the early season standings and giving the 28-year-old optimism for what lies ahead.
"It's satisfying to know that after we put so much effort into the off-season was have seen some results right away," Busch said. "We need to keep heading down that road and hope that we've chosen the right path."
The path leads Busch back to Vegas this weekend, but like everyone else entered in Sunday's UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 he's dealing with a whole new deck at his hometown track.
Las Vegas Motor Speedway now has turns banked at 20 degrees, instead of the 12 degrees from its first nine Cup races. Pit road has been moved closer to the frontstretch grandstands and the new "Neon Garage" opens for the first time this weekend.
"Everybody has a fresh and equal opportunity," Busch said of this week's race. "It just seems like every year you go to Vegas you can't get away from construction. The city keeps getting better and the racetrack keeps getting better."
Busch said the new Las Vegas track is "all about speed." The track is so fast that Goodyear has brought a harder left-side tire and NASCAR will require teams to run a smaller fuel cell - 13 gallons instead of 17.5 - to bring them in for potential tire changes more often.
Busch said he thinks the tire and fuel cells will provide the best balance for competition possible on the track's new surface. His best finish here was third two years ago, behind his younger brother, Kyle, and Jimmie Johnson, who scored the first of back-to-back Vegas victories that day.
"It seems like I do put more pressure on myself to run well here," Busch said. "I want to bring home a victory for my hometown."
As unusual as that hometown might be.