Kurt Busch on brink of a double with no equal
May 22, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- It took Kurt Busch nearly half an hour Thursday to sign in at the NASCAR transporter, a routine duty drivers must fulfill each week before getting on the track. The delay wasn't due solely to fans asking the Stewart-Haas Racing driver for autographs -- it was because Busch was stopped repeatedly by other drivers and crew chiefs, who all wanted to talk to him about the same thing.
"It's just so exciting to talk about it," Busch said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "It's just hard to put it all into words."
And now, it's almost here. The road to the first Memorial Day weekend double in a decade ends this with a flurry of practices in both Charlotte and Indianapolis leading up to the 1,100-mile odyssey itself. Thursday, Busch was in his No. 41 machine for practice and qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600. Friday brings Carburetion Day, the last shakedown of his open-wheel car in Indy. Saturday, he'll be back in Charlotte for final practice in his Sprint Cup Series vehicle. Sunday, it's a green flag at the Brickyard shortly after noon local time, and then a 90-minute commute to Concord for the 6 p.m. capper in NASCAR's longest race.
It's a breathless final push toward an undertaking no driver has attempted since Robby Gordon's last effort in 2004, and only two others -- John Andretti and Tony Stewart -- have tried previously. But none of those endeavors featured a born-and-bred stock-car driver branching out into the opposite discipline. None of them featured almost hourly updates on social media. And none of them has galvanized the NASCAR community quite like this one, thanks in large part to speed in the open-wheel car that has a few wondering if Busch can do something that's never been done.
"I really do believe Kurt has an opportunity to pull that off," Clint Bowyer said, referring to the Indy 500. "That would be something that would make all of us in this sport pretty proud."
No driver has ever won either half of the double -- in fact, Stewart in 2001 remains the only driver to complete every lap. But there's something about this effort by Busch that's captured the attention of the Sprint Cup garage area, given that the driver at the center of it all is a NASCAR champion who swept the May races at Charlotte in 2010, and got up to speed extremely quickly in his open-wheel entry. Over a few weeks Busch went from virtually zero experience in an IndyCar to a very competitive 230 mph, and even used his crash in practice Monday to accelerate his learning curve.
"I’m glad that I experienced it," he said. "I might sound stupid by staying that I’m glad I wrecked at 220 mph, but if I didn’t put myself in that position I would have done that on Sunday possibly 50 laps into the race. That is how you have to advance through life, is to learn from your mistakes."
Those in the open-wheel community have taken notice. "He is talented and incredibly brave," former Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr., now a television analyst, said of Busch. "If he digests this last hit he had -- it took me a long time to digest -- if he can go through that, he's in that leading group at the end of the race, I would consider him a possible top-three finisher, if he gets through all the problems during the race. But he's been incredible. I'm very impressed."
Another believer is Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time winner in NASCAR's top series and former Indy 500 champion who returned to open-wheel racing this year. Montoya said Busch's crash Monday happened after the driver overcorrected, likely because his natural instincts from driving the heavier stock car led him to put too much wheel into the vehicle. But after a month being around Indy, Montoya said it's clear Busch is growing more comfortable. The two drivers both will start the 500 in the fourth row.
"I think the cool thing is, Kurt doesn't know what to expect, and he's in a good place," Montoya said during a recent visit to Charlotte. "If he does the smart thing, that is get in line, get comfortable, and build to it, he'll do a really good job."
Other drivers in the NASCAR garage will certainly be rooting for him, and will be following the first half of his double with interest. "I think it's awesome. Can't wait to get up on Sunday morning and turn on the Indy 500 and watch Kurt's day," said Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray. The question is whether that curiosity will lure more NASCAR drivers to try it, particularly since several -- Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne among them -- have expressed an interest in one day attempting the 500.
"My desire to compete in the Indianapolis 500 has not diminished one bit. But I made a deal with my wife. So, a deal’s a deal," Johnson said Thursday. Even though the undertaking necessitated back-and-forth airplane trips last weekend as well as this one -- not to mention the hiring of Parker Kligerman as a standby driver -- Busch fully vouches for the experience.
"I’m a racer. Tony Stewart is a racer, Robby Gordon is a racer, and John Andretti is a racer. This is a true test of what your commitment level is on being a racer," Busch said. "There are so many practices back and forth, the travel, the logistics -- the fun meter is pegged right now. I’m having a blast doing it. You just have to know it comes with a lot of hard work. I encourage others to try it out."
Jeff Burton, a 21-time winner at NASCAR's top level who now competes part-time while working as an analyst for NBC Sports, said there's always been keen interest among many Sprint Cup drivers in the Indy 500, to the point where they've asked officials to turn on the end of the race before the driver's meeting prior to the Coca-Cola 600. But when it comes to the double, Burton believes it has to be a perfect situation with owners and sponsors all on board. Busch has that with Stewart as the co-owner of his No. 41 car, as well as a race victory that enhances his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hopes. But not every driver does.
"I just don’t know how it can't take a little bit away. If he was in the situation where he hadn't won a race and he didn't look like he was good in the points as far as being able to get in the Chase, I would think he would be under a fair amount of criticism for taking away from his Cup program. It's got to be a unique situation where the car owner is 100 percent for it, he understands that it is going to be a distraction. There's no way it's not a distraction," Burton said.
"I just think it takes so much time away from the Cup thing. To do it right, it takes commitment. I just don’t know how many people are going to raise their hand and want to do it, because there's just no way it can't be a distraction from your Cup program."
In Busch's case, that remains to be seen. He finished 11th in the All-Star event, getting knocked out of the top five before the final 10-lap dash due to his average finish over the first four segments. After he completes his run at the Brickyard on Sunday and touches down in the Charlotte infield in a helicopter, all eyes will turn to his effort in NASCAR's longest race. Prior to that, though, the same drivers who will ultimately be competing against him will be cheering Busch's attempt in a double unlike anything the sport has ever seen.
"I can't wait to watch and pull for him," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "He's representing our sport, and whether he knows it or not, he's got a lot of people, drivers and crew, and just about everybody in the infield is going to be pulling for him to do well. He's representing all of us."