Double dry run ends with Busch seeking balance
May 17, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kurt Busch climbed out of his No. 41 car in the Charlotte Motor Speedway garage area Saturday night, walked around to the front end, and then began peering intently at the nose of the vehicle along with his team owner and engineer. He then walked over to the adjacent transporter and had a long conversation with teammate Tony Stewart following an exhibition event neither had a real chance to win.
For Busch, it was all about the search for balance -- not just between Charlotte and Indianapolis in his quest to race two of Memorial Day weekend's crown jewels in the same day, but also on his No. 41 machine so he has the opportunity to contend for the victory when he returns to the 1.5-mile NASCAR track next Sunday after competing in the Indianapolis 500.
"Overall, me and Tony, it’s not right to see the 41 and the 14 (cars) back there," Busch said after finishing 11th in the Sprint All-Star Race, one spot ahead of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate. "We can't attack the track. We both had the same comments, and when we're racing around other guys, it's like they're the stronger guy at an arm-wrestling match -- guys can wrestle us a little harder, maneuver their cars a bit more aggressive, and we're just kind of running our pace, that isn't in that top-five pace."
Next Sunday Busch will become just the fourth driver -- and the first in 10 years -- to compete in both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day, and Saturday offered something of a dry run for that attempt. At 8:30 a.m., he was on the track in Indianapolis making qualifying runs in his open-wheel machine. After two full qualifying attempts and a top speed of 229.960 mph, Busch left the Brickyard in mid-afternoon for Charlotte, a trip that by helicopter and airplane took one hour and 31 minutes from one garage area to another.
Although Parker Kligerman -- who drove Busch's car in All-Star practice Friday -- was on standby, Busch made it to Charlotte in plenty of time to take part in qualifying and start the race. He used the event's opening 20-lap segment to settle in, and the No. 41 car used a pair of two-tire pit stops in between segments to gain track position. Busch finished the penultimate segment in fourth, but the cars were lined up for a final, mandatory four-tire pit stop by virtue of their average finish through the first four segments -- which sent the 2004 series champion back to ninth.
"Well, damn," Busch said over the radio. "Thought we had a better average than that."
Last year with Furniture Row Racing, Busch led the All-Star Race entering the final segment, but suffered a slow final pit stop that helped Jimmie Johnson go on to win. Saturday, his Stewart-Haas car was able to challenge in clean air, but "we just didn't have the muscle to battle them tonight," Busch said after the race. "... So no real shot to win. Just battling the same conditions Tony is right now. We don't have the balance underneath our cars."
It was a balance with the schedule as well. Busch considered the idea of staying in Indianapolis longer, to post a qualifying attempt that would lock him into the top nine and give him a shot at the pole in final-round qualifying Sunday. He was in the top nine when he left for Charlotte, but was ultimately bumped to 10th -- meaning that while he's guaranteed to be in the Indy 500 starting field next week, the best he can start is on the fourth row in 10th place.
"My thought process was, give respect to the NASCAR side, come back, go to the driver's meeting," Busch said. "That way, we would get our starting spot however we performed in qualifying. My fear was if we left a lug nut loose (in All-Star qualifying), it would be all for naught up there. We left a lug nut loose. I should have stayed up there to make a third run, and see if we could have been in the top nine and have a shot at pole tomorrow. But, let's just keep this all in perspective. I'm a rookie up there."
Indeed, Busch was hit with a five-second penalty in All-Star Race qualifying -- which consisted of three laps and a four-tire pit stop, with no speed limit on pit road -- that forced him to start 18th, and led him to second-guess his plan to get to Charlotte in time for qualifying. But it was still "an amazing day," Busch said. "It was neat to go 230 mph, come down here, act like an animal coming to pit road at 150 mph -- that was fun cold turkey -- and then run in the All-Star Race with the best of the best in our garage."
It was a long day for Busch, who was on the go for the better part of 15 hours Saturday shuttling between two race tracks and two very different types of cars. And it served as precursor to an even longer day next Sunday, when Busch will start an Indy 500 that begins at 12:12 p.m. local time, and then wing it to Charlotte for a 600-miler scheduled to go green at 6 p.m. Eastern. Busch has been training with a Okinawan karate champion in a Maryland dojo in order to prepare himself physically for the 1,100-mile odyssey, and Saturday provided him with something of a preview.
"The pace in that car, in this car, the airplane ride -- yes. But my body will be fatigued after that 500, and it will be a matter of just trying to get as much rest in, and be mentally focused for the 600 miles," he said. "Tonight it took that one segment, 20 laps, to get adjusted. I think if I pretend I need to take more time to get adjusted next week to the 600 miles, that will take a chunk of the race away that we'll be focused on. We'll be focused on it, but it will be (about) just getting settled in that first 100 miles."
And, he hopes, have a chance to contend in the end. While Saturday's performance appeared to be an improvement from his results since winning March 30 at Martinsville -- Busch's best finish since then has been 23rd at Richmond -- he'll need better balance in the car if he hopes to close his run at the Memorial Day weekend double with a victory.
"Just a shame that we're not running up to the front and racing aggressive to have a shot at winning," Busch said. "We're more just trying to find our balance. And if you're trying to find your way, it means you're just going to be able to protect the track position you have. You're not going to be able to gain track position."