Engine woes bring Busch's double to early end
May 25, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
2004 Cup champion finished sixth at Indy but exited early at Charlotte
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Four hours earlier Kurt Busch had been standing on pit road at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in bright sunlight that couldn't match the glow from his head-turning debut in the Indianapolis 500. Now here he was in the darkness of the Sprint Cup Series garage area, his crippled No. 41 car parked behind his transporter, and his quest to complete 1,100 miles in a single Sunday brought to a premature end.
"The engine let go," Busch said after being knocked out of the Coca-Cola 600 on Lap 271 of 400. "Those things happen in motorsports. It was a good battle, though. I was hoping to do 1,100 miles today. I can't let what happened here dampen the mood of what happened up in Indianapolis."
What happened in Indianapolis was a sixth-place finish that belied Busch's status as a first-timer in the event. Only the fourth driver ever -- and the first in a decade -- to attempt the two Memorial Day weekend classics on the same day, Busch was seeking to approach the benchmark set by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart, still the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles in the undertaking. In that 2001 effort, Stewart finished sixth at Indianapolis and third at Charlotte.
Busch matched the opening half of that feat, in an impressive opener for a driver who had never before started an open-wheel race. But his night in the Sprint Cup Series event was a struggle, one that saw him twice use a free pass to get back on the lead lap, break a left-rear shock in a pit road collision with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and then ultimately have his engine let go. Danica Patrick, another SHR teammate who like Busch uses Hendrick Motorsports engines, lost an engine 12 laps after the No. 41 coasted to the garage.
"We've just had a monkey on our back down here running NASCAR this year," said Busch, who entered the night 28th in Sprint Cup points despite a victory earlier in the season at Martinsville. "That kind of motor failure symbolizes some of the struggles we've had."
It was all a stark contrast from earlier in the day, when the track was buzzing in the wake of Busch's strong finish at Indianapolis. Busch flew between the two cities by jet, and his helicopter touched down in the Charlotte infield about an hour before the scheduled start of the NASCAR race. Busch received a robust cheer from fans in the grandstands, and responded by tipping his cap. Then he proceeded to the driver introduction stage, where he was greeted by several military members as well as country music artist Brantley Gilbert, who had performed a concert earlier.
"I'm ecstatic. I'm very happy," he told the Performance Radio Network on the driver introduction stage before the race. "I had no idea we'd be able to finish that well."
According to information provided by Busch's girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series was administered one and a half bags of saline intravenously on the flight from Indy to Charlotte. He also drank a hydration mixture that included electrolytes, sugar and beet juice, and ate a protein bar, a box of raisins and beef jerky. Busch took a 20-minute nap before the jet arrived in Charlotte, and then snacked on peanut butter and jelly squares on whole wheat bread before getting into his car.
"Feeling good," Busch said before the start. "The energy from running the race, the adrenaline, and then to have to separate and focus on what's happening now, and that’s 600 miles. I'm really happy with the finish up there. The Andretti guys were incredible in leading me through that race. I love long green-flag runs in races, and then of course you have to be ready at the end for restarts. All in all, I couldn’t take anything more away."
As it turned out, physical stamina would prove the least of Busch's concerns in Charlotte. Starting at the rear of the field because he missed the mandatory drivers' meeting, Busch fell a lap down in a long green-flag run that opened the event. He used a wave-around, fell a lap down again, and was awarded the free pass during a debris caution. He cracked the top 15 and seemed poised to make a move toward the front of the field.
"Car is the best it's been," he told crew chief Daniel Knost over the radio. "Don't touch it."
But coming in to pit under yellow on lap 214, Busch hit the car of Stenhouse, which he later said "came at me perpendicular on pit road." The contact broke the left-front shock on the No. 41 car, forcing Knost and the crew to try and remedy the problem with spring rubbers rather than go behind the wall -- and lose multiple laps -- to change it out entirely.
Soon enough, though, the issue was moot. "I think we just dropped a cylinder," Busch radioed. Seconds later, he reported losing another one. "It's only a matter of time before she lets go," he said. "This is (bleeping) lame."
On Lap 271, it did. "She's all done," Busch reported, and rolled toward the garage. He had hoped to finish 1,100 miles on Sunday -- and he made it through 906.5.
"We were hanging on," Busch said. "We were going to muscle it out. And then it was like the car just swallowed three cylinders at once."
The driver, though, seemed no worse for wear. "I'm feeling good, actually," Busch said. "The way this race was coming to us, the cooler conditions tonight -- you know, my hands are a little sore, my feet are a little sore, just from working it. And overall, I can stand here with a smile knowing I gave it my own for six months trying to get to this point."
Busch, whose Indy 500 entry was fielded by Andretti Autosport -- which won the event with Ryan Hunter-Reay -- said before the 600 that the experience might lead him to consider trying the double again. Afterward, he had not changed his mind. "I'd love to do it again," he said. "At the same time, you’ve got to do it with quality teams. The teams really can the big different in all this."
Although Busch didn't get the finish he had hoped for in Charlotte, he called the day "a memory I'll have forever. It was a challenge I put forth for myself. I enjoyed it. I soaked it in up north. I loved racing up at Indy, in front of all the Indiana natives and the Hoosiers. They love their speedway up there. Their speedway loves them. That’s what I saw out of that track today. It was a grand stage to stand on and represent NASCAR."
Even if it was the NASCAR event -- the longest on the calendar, a 600-mile marathon designed to test equipment as well as drivers -- where the adventure ultimately ended prematurely. Standing amid a cluster of reporters as the race restarted around him, Busch still managed a smile.
"The mood down here, we're not going to let it damped things," he said. "There's still wind in our sails, and we'll still sail off into the sunset after today."