Showtime: It's time for Kurt Busch to shine on two racing stages
Kurt Busch says he is ready to run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday. Juan Montoya, Tony Stewart warn that Busch must settle into a rhythm early at Indy.
Kurt Busch will jump from his IndyCar ride on the left into his NASCAR ride on the right en route to what he hopes are 1,100 miles of racing Sunday.
Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images, Michael Hickey/Getty Images
By Tom JensenCharlotte, N.C.
It's showtime for Kurt Busch, time to shine on two of the biggest stages in all of motorsports.
The 35-year-old Las Vegas native has spent the month of May learning one new race car -- the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda that he will race in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 -- while going back and forth to his day job, piloting the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet SS in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Now, the manic month of May is down to the only day left that matters: Sunday, May 25, when Busch will attempt to join his boss Tony Stewart as the only drivers to complete all 1,100 laps of the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
Saturday, Busch shook down his SHR Chevrolet at Charlotte, running 26th in the opening practice while sharing time with backup driver Parker Kligerman. In Happy Hour, he was 16th and then took off for the Brickyard and his date with history.
On Sunday, Busch will start 12th in the 33-car 500 field, rolling off on the outside of Row 4. Aside from a crash during practice Monday, Busch hasn't put a wheel wrong all month so far, earning respect from the IndyCar community in the process. In the final Carburetion Day practice on Friday, Busch was a respectable 15th.
Of course, the challenges Busch will face over 1,100 miles on Sunday are daunting.
There is no doubt about Busch's credentials: He won the Sprint Cup championship in 2004 and has quickly gotten up to speed in his Verizon IndyCar Series ride, just as he did last year, when he tested an Australian V8 Supercar at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Busch is an old-fashioned wheelman, or as he likes to say, a racer. He is a superb talent, but he faces stiff odds on Sunday: Not only has Busch not raced in the Indianapolis 500 before, heâs never competed in any IndyCar races.
Part of what Busch will deal with Sunday is the sheer enormity of Indy, a race first run in 1911.
"I donât think you ever prepare for what Sunday is," said Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indy 500 winner, who qualified on the inside of Row 4, the same row where Busch will start from. "I'm not a guy to get overly excited about anything, to be honest. I try to be very neutral. It's easier. And when you come out through Gasoline Alley on race day and see all of those people, you go, 'Oh, my God.' "
Then, there are the more pragmatic challenges.
"The hard part will be not knowing what the start of the race at Indy is like going into Turn 1 -- not knowing how much and how slippery the track is going to get in the race," Stewart said. "And how you think your car feels really good on Carb Day but then you have to have more downforce in it than that for it to stay stable during the race.
"There are a lot of things that are different than what we do as drivers in our respective series that are going to be things that are going to be a challenge for him," Stewart added. "It's hard to learn a lot of those things in practice. It's the race where you learn what the race is really like and it's hard to understand in practice."
Montoya said Busch needs to get into a rhythm early.
"I think the cool thing is Kurt doesn't know what to expect, and he's starting in a good place," Montoya said. "If he does the smart thing, he'll just get in line, get comfortable and build to it, and he'll do fine."
Stewart said being with Andretti Autosport and owner Michael Andretti is an advantage for Busch.
"He's with a great team, and he's with great people," Stewart said of his SHR teammate. "Michael Andretti is definitely a great choice to be with. Michael, being a driver and having run the 500, his experiences there are going to help Kurt. ... He's a great owner and he was a great driver. So, that's going to be a big asset for Kurt to have Michael there and Michael being able to coach him along."
Saturday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch said he was ready to go.
"It's just fun to be part of this spectacle," Busch said. "To get into that race (Indy) and do what I can to advance through the first half of that race while Iâm learning. It's fun being a student again. I've been in this (Sprint Cup) garage for 15 years, I've won a championship. It's fun to take the challenge to drive something different. That car's completely different and you have to separate it. You have to compartmentalize each section of the weekend you're in, each car you're in and each practice."
No matter what, though, when Busch rolls onto the grid at Indy Sunday morning, he'll have a lot of support from the same guys he'll race Sunday night.
"He has done a great job in Indy," said Kevin Harvick, Busch's teammate at SHR. "I know he has the accident this week, but I think that is not a bad thing either. I know it's probably expensive from a team owner's standpoint, but I think knowing where that edge is before you get into the race and not having to hopefully experience that during the race, it's probably good that he got it out of the way."