Double ended early, but respect for Busch complete
May 28, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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As a polarizing driver with a rather colorful history, Kurt Busch is no stranger to the sound of boos coming from the crowd. Being a Busch brother, they just seem to go with the territory, whether they're actually warranted or not. But when the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top series stepped out of a helicopter and onto the grassy infield area of Charlotte Motor Speedway this past Sunday afternoon, he heard something very different indeed.
The crowd assembled in the frontstretch grandstand welcomed Busch with a warm ovation that moved the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to tip his cap, as if he were a ballplayer acknowledging cheers after a home run. On the way from his impromptu landing spot to the driver introduction stage for the Coca-Cola 600, he slapped hands with fans lined up along a railing. Halfway though his first attempt at the Memorial Day weekend double, a driver who's been on the receiving end of so much grief from spectators -- in fairness, some of it deserved -- basked in pure admiration.
It was like that all month for Busch, who became just the fourth man to compete in both the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500, and over the course of that long, single Sunday did so much to reshape how the public views him. It maybe didn't end how he'd hoped -- Busch's No. 41 car was just rounding into shape Sunday night when it was involved in a pit road collision, and then lost an engine which left him 193.5 miles short of his goal of completing all 1,100 -- but mere statistics were vastly overshadowed by the respect he earned in the endeavor.
Now, within the gates of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage area, respect is something Kurt Busch has never lacked. The guy can wheel it like few people in the world, a fact that is indisputable among those whose opinions matter most. But even so, hearing other competitors rave about his undertaking spoke volumes. This was a driver putting in a tremendous amount of work for something he didn't really have to do. This was a driver representing not just himself, but all of his peers in a completely different discipline of racing. This was a driver putting himself out there just for the challenge of it, his sixth-place finish at Indy shining brightly even if the double itself met a premature end.
"It's pretty spectacular," Chad Knaus, crew chief for 600 winner Jimmie Johnson, said in the media center after the race. "… Kurt did a great job. The thing that really amazes me is, we all talk about communication. To be able to go and put himself in that world, begin to try to communicate with those guys that have a completely different vocabulary than what we do on the Cup side, it's spectacular to go through that. Showed a lot of maturity on his part, a lot of desire. I thought that was pretty awesome."
It was, and it seemed capable of netting top-10 finishes in both races before everything started to go south late in the longer NASCAR event -- which, for all the focus on Indianapolis, is always the key to any double attempt. When it ended, Busch seemed just fine physically, as if he had another 900 miles left in him. He was also very patient with a crush of reporters as large as anything Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ever seen. He even spoke briefly to a few writers on pit road prior to the 600, something yours truly can't recall any driver in a similar circumstance doing before. Yes, when it comes to handling the media during a double attempt, it's Kurt Busch who has set the bar.
These days, though, should we really be surprised? Perhaps no driver in NASCAR has been through more character-building experiences over the past three years than Busch, who showed plenty of mettle in his climb back to race-winning form after his split with Roger Penske. His work with the Armed Forces Foundation, in particular former service members dealing with the insidious condition that is post-traumatic stress disorder, has provided perspective and a dose of humility. Adding to all that was the double, which some could have argued was a needless exercise given Busch's position in points, but in the end proved a testament to a work ethic that's among the more underrated in the garage.
"I really like the work he is doing with the armed forces, and it says a lot about what's important to him more than anything he is doing on the race track," Earnhardt said on the eve of the double. "He's doing some amazing work and making an impact. That's doing a lot for him -- like it matters -- in my eyes. I respect him a lot more because of that. The racing thing -- hell, we all like to race, so I can understand his enjoyment of doing the Indy deal. … He's representing the entire sport. Whether he knows it or not, he's got a lot of people, drivers, crew and just about everyone in the infield pulling for him to do well because he is representing all of us. He's definitely put in a strong effort to make a different impression. I have to hand it to him. He's done a lot of work."
And it paid off -- not just in his sterling performance at Indianapolis, not just in his physical preparedness, but in also the goodwill Busch engendered with the public at large. The double is behind him now, and some serious work looms ahead in the effort to get that No. 41 car -- which lingers 28th in points -- in shape for a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that Busch will likely qualify for by virtue of his Martinsville victory earlier in the year. But the double also allowed many to glimpse a different side of a driver nicknamed "the Outlaw" for a reason. In going to Indianapolis he represented something much bigger than himself, and upon landing in Charlotte he heard cheers from race fans who elevate true racers above all else.
"I think it's nice to see the fans recognize him for what he has done," said Rick Hendrick, who provided Busch with advice through some of the driver's darker days. "I think it was outstanding."
His performance in the Indy 500 may have garnered the most attention Sunday, but when it came to the double in its entirety, that arrival in Charlotte eclipsed everything else. Still buzzing from his run at the Brickyard, Busch was greeted warmly by a grandstand crowd that's at times been hostile toward him, and then embraced two military veterans and PTSD sufferers whose names appeared on a decal on his vehicle. Yes, the effort ended prematurely, with his No. 41 car parked behind its transporter while the 600 went on without him. But while he stood in a darkened garage area, it was clear the double had helped many to see Busch in a new light.
Editor's note: Tune in to NBC on Sunday, June 8 at 4:30 p.m. ET for "Kurt Busch: 36," a documentary produced by NASCAR Productions, on Busch's Indy-Charlotte double. A 60-minute director's cut will air the following day, Monday, June 9, at 11 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.