Busch up to speed at Indy, could threaten for 'Fast Nine' in qualifying
May 14, 2014 at 4:35p ET
INDIANAPOLIS - As morning rains and a thick, dark gray sky hovered over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for what was supposed to be the fourth day of practice for the 98th Indianapolis 500 on Wednesday, Kurt Busch cut out of town to head back to his "Day Job" as driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet at Stewart Haas Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He flew back to North Carolina to get his Cup car up to speed for this week's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But he is already up to speed as a rookie driver in the Indianapolis 500.
In Tuesday's practice session, that was rained out after just 97 minutes of activity, Busch clocked off the second-fastest lap of the day at 224.159 miles per hour in a Dallara/Honda. Although that lap was aided by a "tow' (in NASCAR teams, the draft) Busch's lap is the third-fastest combined lap of all the practices so far.
Already a supremely confident driver, that early speed has exceeded Busch's greatest expectations.
"It definitely wasn't on my radar," Busch said. "But what I've been able to do as a student is each day progress at a strong rate, and progressing is being able to digest the information and then being able to apply it the next day. Each day out, the Andretti Autosport team has helped me with a game plan on what's next, so it's nice when you can have a solid forecast of what to expect.
"As far as guys getting tows and posting those good laps, some of my drafting experience helps from what I've seen at Daytona and Talladega; Indianapolis has a little bit of Darlington characteristics into it. What I mean by that is you have to be single file and you have to know which corner you are approaching at all times, and it's a matter of give and take with the other drivers out on the track.
"I haven't been around many guys, mostly the Andretti guys but it's been thumbs up right now. It's been nice to continue to find speed and to feel more comfortable in the car in the traffic."
Craig Hampson is the man directing Busch's Indianapolis 500 effort at Andretti Autosport. The race engineer has been impressed with Busch's ability to give useful feedback to the team regarding his laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also is not surprised because he knew Busch was a smart driver.
"Within the people I know in NASCAR, Kurt is well regarded for his driving talent," Hampson said. "He has fast hands. He has good car control. That has been evident from the start. The speed is not a problem for him at all. He has been very methodical in the way he has worked up to it. He has had a lot of very intelligent questions and good observations about the car. He is clearly a true professional - a top-class driver.
"It's a different vehicle for him but all the same things that you have to look for in terms of the handling of the car and what it does in traffic and what you need to do with the setup and how to get ready for the race and take care of tires he already knows those things are important so we are well up to speed for that type of thing."
Busch's feedback has been extremely useful to the Andretti Autosport crew although the vocabulary some things has a NASCAR quality to it.
"He brought up wedge and we said instead of adding front wing we'll put two pieces of tape on the front," Hampson continued. "His language is different - I've heard a few snugs and tights that we don't use over here but as far as useful feedback he has been up to speed since Day One on that. One of the things you see with drivers when they first get into it is it's all going on too quickly for them and they are not ahead of the car. He has been ahead of the car the whole time.
"At this point we regard him similar to our other drivers in terms to our value of his comments and what we are asking him to do in the car."
An IndyCar has many more adjustments inside the cockpit to change the handling of the car such as weight jacker, clutch paddle, shift paddle, fuel mixtures and anti-roll adjustments. Busch has been able to make those adjustments while running in a tight pack at over 224 miles per hour.
As for his fastest lap, Hampson decided to reveal the secret.
"I would like to say it was car setup or my engineering talent but we got the magic tow," Hampson said. "It just worked out that we were behind a big pack of cars when we were on fresh tires and Kurt had the talent and knowledge to keep his foot down. The most important thing is we need to keep exposing him to the situations he will experience in the race and that is running in dirty air, running in packs and give him the opportunity to learn what line to take to pass somebody and adjust.
"His biggest comment and surprise is how this car is affected by dirty air and the tow is 10 times what it is in a NASCAR car but the handling degradation to dirty air is also 10 times what it is in a NASCAR car. He is still learning how to position the car in the dirty air and I still have some work to do with the setup to make that better for him."
With all five Andretti Autosport cars in the top 10 in practice on Monday there is a legitimate possibility that Busch could be in the "Fast Nine" drivers that will battle it out for the pole position Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1-3 p.m. ET. The team placed all five of its drivers in that group last year and the addition to Busch to that group would be quite impressive for the 2004 Sprint Cup champion.
"There is a legitimate chance to do that," Hampson admitted. "We would be disappointed not to have cars in the Fast Nine this time. But the starting position unless you are on pole doesnât matter that much. They are awarding points this year based on starting position but Kurt isn't running for IndyCar points this year so those points donât help us in any way. To me the most important thing is to get a good car for the race.
"While I would like to qualify well it is not a focus of our program. We need as many laps as possible with Kurt. We need as many times with him out there running in packs of cars to get our setup better."
Busch's performance so far has not been surprising to one of the Verizon IndyCar Series' top drivers.
"I thought he would pick it up really well because he's a very good driver that races on ovals every week," said Team Penske driver Will Power. "Over here, he is doing a bloody good job.
"From everything you hear about Kurt Busch he is a very, very good driver."
With four teammates at Andretti Autosport, Busch has plenty of feedback from drivers such as 2012 IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, last year's second-place finisher Carlos Munoz and, this week, E.J. Viso, who is filling in for the injured James Hinchcliffe until that driver can be cleared to return to his car after suffering a concussion in last Saturday's Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Busch has been down on his Sprint Cup program lately but his time in the Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda has put a smile back on the driver's face this week.
"This is a pretty good opportunity for any race car driver to come run for one of the top teams in the Indy 500," Hampson said. "He ought to be excited about that. I think it's a really good experience for him. Any race car driver learns something any time he drives a race car. He will still pick up on a thing or two that will help him in his day job.
"He's a good guy. We're excited about it because he is a pro. He has won a lot of races and won a championship.
"We think he can do well in the race this year."