2004 NASCAR champion embraces harried travel schedule, challenges of IndyCar in prepping for Memorial Day weekend
INDIANAPOLIS -- Reclining in a Cessna Citation X 750 cruising at 606 mph — faster than the combined speed of the dual supersonic rockets he drove Saturday — Kurt Busch was happy.
Between excitedly checking his smartphone for the status of his Indianapolis 500 qualifying lap, cracking jokes about retracted tweets and offering a detailed analysis of where the Mason-Dixon line begins, the sometimes-mercurial former NASCAR champion was unfettered by the pressure of constantly commuting about 400 miles between the country's two biggest motor sports circuits.
"This is fun," said girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, the linchpin who has organized the logistics — planes, karate and carb-loading — in Busch's attempt at becoming the fourth driver to race the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. "Normally, he's not this fun after qualifying. At all."
Busch smiled sheepishly. "Yes, Dear," he said.
A day later, the fun hadn't faded.
"I'll probably never be able to duplicate a day like that in a race car," Busch said after qualifying 12th for his first and likely only attempt at the Indy 500. "Except next week."
Sunday will bring the ultimate endurance test — 1,100 miles across consecutive races at treacherous high-speed tracks: Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If he completes both Memorial Day weekend crown jewels, it will rank among the year's greatest racing feats and he will become the second driver to do so.If he wins one, Busch, 35, will cement his place among the greatest drivers of his generation.
INDY 500: Busch will start 12th
And he might have a better shot at winning with the car that he won't have raced before taking the green flag in the 98th Indianapolis 500.
In a Dallara-Honda nearly half the weight of the 3,600-pound Chevrolet he drives for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Sprint Cup Series and far more nimble ("One's a sports car; one's a workload truck. Both have a special feel," he said), Busch quickly has gotten acclimated to the 2.5-mile oval.
While his first-year team in NASCAR has struggled through one of the worst slumps of his career, Busch has excelled with hardly a hiccup during this one-race foray into the Verizon IndyCar Series.
In a 33-car field with a 229.382-mph qualifying average that is the fastest in history, Busch will start ahead of luminaries such as defending Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan and 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
The key to a great result will be adapting to split-second closing rates in open-wheel vehicles that don't allow the fender banging of his native NASCAR, but Busch has grown increasingly adept with traffic the last three weeks.
"He looked incredibly comfortable, just like, 'OK, this is no big deal,' " ESPN analyst Eddie Cheever Jr., who won the Indy 500 in 1998, told USA TODAY Sports. "He knows what he's got to do. He doesn't seem bashful about thinking he's capable of it.
"If he's in the top five and there's a mad rush the last two laps, I give him as much a chance as anybody. Because he's done it so many times before."
PHOTOS: Kurt Busch Indy 500-Coke 600 double
Busch has won 25 races and the 2004 title in NASCAR's premier series, but the Las Vegas native is known as much for his fiery outbursts against the media, which led to his 2011 departure from prestigious Team Penske, and a churlish side that can manifest itself in meltdowns on his team radio. Busch, who resurrected his career this year in joining SHR (his fourth NASCAR team in three years), has dubbed himself The Outlaw, but he has been affable and gracious in building a legion of admirers at Indy.
Asked about working with his new teammate, Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe joked that Busch was "normally throwing stuff and cussing a lot.
"No, no, that's clearly the Kurt of old," he said. "The guy we've had has just been awesome. It's been really cool seeing someone with as much racing knowledge and experience as he has. He's brought a lot to the table in that respect. Some of the philosophies are very different, but you're taking a rookie who happens to have a billion races under his belt.
"His knowledge of car physics and vehicle dynamics is stellar. He's really fun to work with and really receptive to things we've been saying and asking a lot of questions. He's done a phenomenal job"
Busch will become the first driver to attempt the racing doubleheader since Robby Gordon in 2004, but if he excels it could pave the way for moonlighting by other NASCAR drivers who have expressed an interest, including Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson.
"There's always this big debate in motor racing, 'Which are the best race car drivers in the States,'" Cheever said. "I think it's awesome that somebody would actually take that leap and measure himself up to other people."
Driving the conversation
Though the relationship between NASCAR and IndyCar has been quite frosty over the years, Busch has been welcomed warmly by a usually provincial crowd at Indy. During a qualifying draw Friday, track announcer Bob Jenkins summoned Busch to a microphone at the front of a room full of drivers and team executives, asking "Are you having as much fun as we are watching you?" (Busch's answer: "It's been a blast.")
In the track's interview room Saturday, moderator Pat Sullivan introduced Busch with "a general comment, from all of us at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we're glad to have a driver of your talents cross over to the Indianapolis 500. It means a lot to all of us."
Busch has been among NASCAR's most polarizing drivers (along with brother Kyle), but fan reception at Indy has been overwhelmingly positive. His golf cart constantly is besieged by autograph seekers, and Busch doffed his cap to one of Sunday's loudest cheers from the frontstretch crowd after qualifying on the fourth row beside three-time series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya, a NASCAR and Formula One veteran.
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Cheever said Busch has restored buzz missing from a race that has battled to regain its luster two decades after a bitter rift between teams and track management resulted in many stars being absent for several years.
"I think everybody was very disappointed when Danica Patrick went to NASCAR (in 2012)," Cheever said. "There was a moment of pause. I think if Busch continues to do what he's doing, he'll bring what she took away plus something. I knew very little about him. Obviously, the Busch brothers are very colorful, so it's always fun to see what sort of trouble they're in, but I read his resume and said, 'Oh my God, this guy is big-time impressive.' It's the stuff that fairy tales are made of, so If he does well, a lot of NASCAR fans will tune into the 500."
In 2001, Tony Stewart had the best showing by a driver starting both races. Busch's car owner and teammate in NASCAR was sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte.
"He'll have a lot to learn in a short amount of time, but he has an overwhelming amount of driving talent on his side," Stewart said. "He has a great car owner with Michael Andretti, who's not only an owner but he's been a driver, too. Michael has so much to offer Kurt in terms of knowledge and firsthand experience. It really seems like a natural pairing."
Cheever, Stewart's former teammate in IndyCar, thinks it's easier to parachute into the Indy 500 because of a standardized chassis and only two engine manufacturers. Last year's race featured a record 68 lead changes as drafting became a big equalizer.
"Everybody has a very similar car, and the equipment is kind of equal," Cheever said. "It's more open to outsiders coming in and doing well if they're willing to put in the effort and be crazy enough to take the risks and ride the wave instead of getting overrun by it."
Said Montoya, "He's doing a really good job in a really good car with a good team. The racing will be harder because he's not 100% sure what he's going to get."
Support from NASCAR
His NASCAR team is familiar with what Busch is facing. SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli was the Cup crew chief when Stewart attempted both races in '99 and '01.
"There doesn't seem to be a whole lot different from when Tony did it," Zipadelli said. "If that's the case, it's going to be somewhat of a non-event."
It might be a bigger distraction, though, if Busch didn't have a provisional berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup because of his March 30 victory at Martinsville Speedway. Busch hasn't finished higher than 23rd in five races since.
"Oh my God, yeah, if he didn't have that win, there'd be a whole different outlook on it," Zipadelli said. "Unless it's on your bucket list, it's hard to make any sense of doing it anyway. We support it and do the best we can on this side to make sure it goes off as smooth as it can and make sure he has everything he needs from our side for us to be successful in the 600."
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There is some sponsor discord (such as conflicts between Chevy and Honda and Verizon and Sprint) that precludes SHR and Andretti working in concert on Busch's project.
Growing pains for Busch's No. 41 team have led to some awkward moments. The pit crew made a mistake in All-Star Race qualifying Saturday – leaving a lug nut loose that cost 5 seconds and a few starting spots – that had Busch second-guessing if he should have left Indy before Saturday's qualifying session ended (losing him a shot at the pole position).
But Busch has the full backing and blessing of Stewart, and Zipadelli said the team is supportive of Busch at Indy all the way to the checkered flag – at which point NASCAR becomes the priority.
"He better drink the milk fast and haul butt," Zipadelli said, referring to the winner's tradition. "I'll have a gallon of milk waiting for him when he lands in Charlotte. We'll pour it on him. He can go back and do the ceremony after."
Conditioning a key
Reminders of NASCAR were everywhere Saturday for Busch in completing a dry run of commuting between Indy and North Carolina. Starting the morning at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s former motor home (adorned with an orange skull and cross bones from the "Dirty Mo Posse" era of NASCAR's most popular driver), Busch flew in a Cessna-supplied plane (tail number N1JM) that usually is used by All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray.
The flight from Indianapolis to Concord took 51 minutes, and the return Sunday took 59 minutes, which should leave enough time on race day, though Busch might miss a driver's meeting and be forced to start from the rear. The Indy 500 will start at 12:12 p.m. ET and typically is over in less than three hours. The Coke 600 will start around 6:15 p.m.
Even more important than travel itineraries is physical conditioning, and Busch will be on a strict diet with lots of carbohydrates (oatmeal, salmon and potatoes are on the menu) and hydration. A nurse and doctor will be on the race-day plane to administer fluids and vitamins.
Busch also has been on an intense regimen at Okinawan Karate Dojo in Ellicott City, Md., with Stanley Crump, who has him on a daily routine of one-hour boot camp exercises aimed at stamina and forearm strength while mixing in martial arts principles.
"I've been bringing Kurt to the attention of the karate principle that when you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies, so be prepared," Crump told USA TODAY Sports. "The toughest thing for him is blocking out the distractions of media, transportation between the two races, potential crashes, etc."
Busch, who is dedicating his run to the armed services and asking fans to donate to Driscoll's Armed Forces Foundation, said the wounded veterans he has visited would be an inspiration.
"If I'm ready to fall out of my seat, I'll think of that and dig deep," he said.
Six-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson, a fitness nut who has been advising Busch on nutrition, thinks the biggest hurdle is stress. "It takes a big toll on the body, and he's got a lot of stress on his plate right now," he said.
Busch handled it with aplomb on Sunday, qualifying at 230.782 mph despite only five hours of sleep after landing in Indianapolis at 7:25 a.m.
As he and Driscoll walked toward the helicopter that would ferry them to the track, they playfully bumped into each other.
Life seemed good. Busch was back home in Indiana.
"I'm enjoying and taking it all in," he said. "To be on the fourth row of the Indianapolis 500, I'll give it a thumbs up."
Follow Ryan on Twitter @nateryan
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