Time at Charlotte could revive ‘The Outlaw’s’ season
Race day itself may still be more than a week away, but the double has begun in earnest for Kurt Busch. This past Sunday brought the official opening of practices for the Indianapolis 500, Friday kicks off NASCAR’s All-Star Race festivities at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and airplanes are ready and waiting to shuttle the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion back and forth between the two venues and two very different types of cars.
This is all in preparation for next Sunday, of course, when Busch will become just the fourth driver to take on the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indy 500 in the same day, and the first to try it in a decade. Those who have witnessed previous attempts know that the endeavor injects some serious juice into what is already one of America’s biggest race days — who can forget the sight of a helicopter dropping off Robby Gordon in the infield grass, or Tony Stewart finishing sixth in the first event and then third in the second to set a standard that probably still doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.
Stewart remains the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles in the undertaking, a benchmark his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Busch has to measure himself against. Replicating that feat — remember, Stewart was an IndyCar champion before he switched to stock cars — is a lot to ask of a driver whose open-wheel experience is essentially limited to the past few weeks. But regardless, it’s going to be fun to watch unfold. It’s going to raise awareness for Busch’s off-track project, veterans and active military members suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. And it’s certainly going to allow one of the more naturally talented drivers in the NASCAR garage area to challenge himself.
And yet, the Indy-Charlotte twin bill isn’t the only key “double” Busch has looming ahead of him. This entire endeavor is made a little easier by Busch’s victory earlier this season at Martinsville, which — barring a continued glut of winners that pushes the total over 16 for the regular season — should secure his place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. That cushion gives him some leeway in the event of an unforeseen schedule conflict, given that his NASCAR playoff berth seems virtually assured. Good thing, too — because the five races since his victory have been a brutal stretch which have sent Busch spiraling to 28th in points.
How bad has it been? Consider that this past Saturday night at Kansas — where he spun, cut a tire, and finished four laps down in 29th — still netted Busch his second-best finish since he won at the paper clip-shaped short track. The high-water mark in between was 23rd at Richmond, the low point 39th at Texas. While a lot of this can hardly be pinned on the driver — Busch battled handling issues at Kansas, was taken out at Darlington, got caught in the big one at Talladega — the results are the same, and suddenly he’s 48 points out of 30th, the cutoff for Chase qualification whether he has a victory or not.
That’s still a healthy margin under this point system, and it’s hard to believe he’d fall that far. Of course, it’s also hard to believe he’s trailing teammate Danica Patrick in the standings at this point in the season. “We need to do better,” Busch said after Kansas, a weekend that opened with his best qualifying position of the year, “and hopefully we will do better moving forward.”
Toward that end, the next two weekends present an opportunity. Although he didn’t win either race, Busch was the class of both May events last year at Charlotte Motor Speedway, at the time with a single-car Furniture Row Racing team that makes do with less than his SHR organization has now. Busch led the Sprint All-Star Race until the caution before the final segment, when a slow pit stop knocked him back to fifth and allowed Jimmie Johnson to get out front and win. A week later, Busch led the Coca-Cola 600 with 74 laps remaining before he suffered a dead battery under a red flag that forced him to the back of the field, and ultimately to settle for third.
Those two weekends in Charlotte were what convinced everyone that Busch and his No. 78 team were for real, a promise he delivered on by carrying a single-car organization into the Chase for the first time. Now two weekends in Charlotte loom again, and though so much attention is placed on his Memorial Day weekend effort, these nine days on the 1.5-mile track offer a real chance for him to build some momentum with his No. 41 team. It’s the double within the double, and in the bigger picture — because racing stock cars and pursing NASCAR championships are what Busch is all about — it might prove more important. When he’s dropped off in the Charlotte infield by helicopter May 25, the Indy 500 will be behind him. The job of getting his Sprint Cup team back in title-contending shape will still lie ahead.
Now, that’s not to cast dispersions on his Indy-Charlotte effort, which his team co-owner Stewart can certainly appreciate, and his teammate Patrick will surely be watching with a keen eye. That undertaking, though, will ultimately be contained to a single day. Given that so many teams use the All-Star Race as something of a test session for the 600 — often driving the cars they’ll use as backups a week later — one event can build upon another, a reason why certain drivers (like Busch last season) often shine on both Charlotte weekends rather than just one. Given the number of 1.5-mile tracks remaining on the schedule — not to mention the Chase — a secure foothold now may very well aid in a climb later on.
To be fair, it’s been hard to evaluate Busch’s cars in recent weeks, given that he’s had so much go wrong. He ran in the top 10 before the crash at Talladega and was seventh before being taken out at Darlington, so perhaps his points position paints an unfairly dire picture of his current situation. The handling issues he battled at Kansas and Texas, though, were very real. Regardless, it’s hard to believe a champion driver like Busch — behind the wheel of what’s essentially Hendrick Motorsports equipment, no less — can be satisfied with where he is now. He has the chance to start turning it around thanks to an upcoming double, one that has nothing to do with Indianapolis.