Checking one off the bucket list: Kurt Busch at the Indy 500

Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, participates in testing for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

Scott R LePage

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When Kurt Busch arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Opening Day to begin his first real day as a rookie driver at the Indianapolis 500, he waited patiently as his Andretti Autosport crew repaired the damage that had been done to his ride the day before in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Franck Montagny was the driver of the No. 26 Dallara/Honda in the first ever IndyCar race on the IMS road course, and was involved in a crash during the 82-lap event. The Dallara race chassis was repaired but the engine was damaged from the incident and required an engine swap.

“Something hit the engine so we had to change out the engine, but because we aren’t a full-time entry in the IndyCar Series that won’t set the team back any in terms of the mileage requirement,” Busch said.

So it was past 3 p.m. on Sunday before Busch hit the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. The 2004 NASCAR Cup champion quickly got up to speed by running 31 laps with his fast lap at 220.352 miles per hour.

It had already been a busy weekend for Busch, who finished 29th, four laps behind race winner Jeff Gordon, in Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway before flying to Indianapolis to prepare for one of the most unique challenges of his career. It’s likely he could have used some of the NASCAR race sponsor’s product but Busch is already one of racing more energetic drivers and lamented his performance in the No. 41 Chevrolet for Stewart Haas Racing.

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“That was easily our worst race of the season,” Busch admitted. “I don’t know what is wrong with side of the operation right now but we are struggling with the car. It’s a good thing we have that win at Martinsville Speedway, though, because that will get us in the Chase but right now we need to get back up to speed on the NASCAR side.

“We’ve been hot or we’ve been ice cold. Kansas Saturday night was ice cold again. So it’s great to have that win, to have that security. We’ve got ten winners already, though, and there are only 16 slots for winners. So with Jeff Gordon leading the points and having the win, that’s 16 guys, 16 winners will get in. We have to get our act together if we want to compete. This Charlotte/Indy double will give be tough to give it full focus, but once I get to Dover the first of June, we’re going to be all over that 41 car.”

In some ways his attempt at competing in the Indianapolis 500 has probably come at a good time for the petulant driver because it has taken his mind off his NASCAR woes. Meantime, he has adapted quite well to the IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the first two days of practice.

With temperatures soaring into the mid-80s on Monday and the Verizon IndyCar Series teams using the early part of the week to work on Race Day setup, Busch’s best speed was down to 219.738 mph after running 40 laps by mid-afternoon. But his fast start on Opening Day on Sunday has proven Busch is a quick-learner to the high-speed nature of IndyCar racing.

“It was a nice rookie day to go and play in traffic,” Busch said. “When your parents tell you to go out as a kid and play in traffic, they try to get rid of you. The Andretti Autosport guys said, it’s time to ramp up where we are with your level; and that’s to get into some dirty air and feel the car behind other cars.

“Sunday was a nice shakedown. And then the second run out was a baseline run, and then the third time out was to follow around Ryan Hunter‑Reay, a champion. That’s helping me. It’s really nice to have his lead. Carlos Munoz was in our pack, as well as E.J. Viso. It’s nice to have the teammates looking back in their mirrors for me and to help out.”

Busch experiences drafting and turbulence in NASCAR Sprint Cup contests, but talked about the dramatic difference he feels in an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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In NASCAR it’s called “drafting,” but at the Indianapolis 500 the art of the slipstream that is created by cars in front is known as the “tow.” And Busch believes that aerodynamic principle is incredibly different in an IndyCar.

“The best way to explain it is it’s time ten, the amount of draft that you feel versus a stock car, which means I can easily catch the guy in front of me,” Busch said. “The flipside to that is these cars have less horsepower, so if you ease off the gas, it really kills your momentum. So it’s almost a balance of running it like a Nationwide horsepower, but then the dirty air is times ten on how quickly you can catch a guy if you have a run on him.

“So there is a lot to digest and then you have less horsepower to cover up any of your mistakes.

“Our car definitely changed. The attitude and dirty air, it’s exciting because every corner is different. And you have to remember where each of those moments from the lap before; and then continue to gain more information and digest what just happened in the next lap. And things are moving quickly at 220, and it’s ‑‑ you know, it’s just a few cars. So I know there’s going to be more dirty air and there’s going to be tougher conditions, and then as we advance through the week, you know, just each day, just kind of check off the list and get further into more detail with the team.”

The other four drivers at Andretti Autosport including Marco Andretti, Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and E.J. Viso, who was filling in for Hinchcliffe, have welcomed Busch to the team.

Overall, it’s been a grand reception here in the IndyCar paddock, which is nice,” Busch said. “It’s a warm welcome.

“There’s also the guys on the NASCAR guys that have shown interest on ‑‑ go on up there, see what you can do, we’re wishing you the best. Not necessarily show those guys up, but just give it a good run. It’s great to talk with guys like Gordon about it, Jeff Gordon. Carl Edwards is interested about it. And Marcos Ambrose came over; he was asking me questions on the open‑wheel side of things, because Marcos before he was an Australian V8 Supercar champion drove a lot of open‑wheel cars.

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“So it’s just interesting to have the camaraderie and talk back and forth. Even a legend in my mind stopped in the garage stall back in the concrete jungle ‑‑ what’s it back there, the paddock.”

Actually, it’s called Gasoline Alley and it’s the most famous garage area in American motorsports. Busch is familiar with those garages during his time in the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Now, he’s prepared to compete in the race that has made this place famous – the Indianapolis 500. And his first step in that quest has already begun with two days of practice for the 98th Indianapolis 500.

Busch is attempting to do the “Double” of competing in the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the same day – the first time a driver has attempted that since 2004. What makes Busch’s attempt different than John Andretti’s in 1994, Tony Stewart’s in 1999 and 2001 and Robby Gordon’s three attempts is those drivers began their careers as IndyCar drivers before switching to NASCAR.

Busch is the first true NASCAR driver with no previous IndyCar experience to attempt to run the Indy 500 since Neil Bonnett in 1979. Bonnett was up to speed in practice but blew an engine on the morning of pole qualifying. The following weekend, rain complicated his schedule, and he decided to withdraw from Indy.

NASCAR’s Donnie Allison finished fourth in the 1970 Indy 500 and won the World 600 the following day – the most successful NASCAR driver that competed in both races the same season.

“It is a challenge to come into a foreign area of motorsport with a Gold Medal so to speak,” Busch said of his 2004 NASCAR Cup title. “Winning the NASCAR championship years ago was something very special. It was a childhood dream and I spent every day of my life focused on stock cars.

“This moment here reminds me of my childhood when I had a chance to run an open‑wheel car with Davey Hamilton, a Supermodified guy from the West Coast. He was trying to get me in a midget to go run a dirt track race. And that same week, I raced a late model and won my first‑ever late model race and headed the stock car route.

“And so this is a circle back around to that open‑wheel moment where I saw that fork in the road and said, you know, would I have loved to have run some USAC and Silver cars and Silver Crown, and I guess I just came back to the top and started at the Indianapolis 500 (laughter) with the list amount of experience, because I probably embarrassed myself more so at the lower ranks.

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“It’s a unique opportunity to race with Andretti, to have him there and talking with Mario (Andretti) this morning. It’s not like I’m putting my career or my credentials on the line to prove anything. This is a moment to check off something on the bucket list, but also to challenge myself to see where I can end up in this open‑wheel rank at one of the most difficult races in the world.”

Busch has felt plenty of support from his fellow NASCAR drivers including some that may be envious that he has a chance to race in the Indianapolis 500.

“Tony Stewart, of course, he’s patting me on my back; ‘Good luck, I’m jealous, I want to go do it,’” Busch said. “And it’s great to have him as a team owner to respect what has to happen in the double. The guys that are interested, like you’re saying — maybe Jeff Gordon. He’s talking to me, he’s gaining a little bit more interest is because of he would love to have a shot at doing it, being the Indiana native that it is. Carl Edwards, he’ll drive anything. Marcos Ambrose, he’ll drive anything. So I can kind of see it but I haven’t really felt it.”

Busch gets to experience his dream of racing in the Indianapolis 500 but don’t expect to see him make a career switch and start driving USAC Midgets or Sprints in the future.

“My quick answer to that is I’ve seen a lot of Motocross guys recently, and they say, with age, you get a cage,” Busch quipped. “So maybe with my fender world I grew up in, I don’t need to go fenderless.

“It’s very fun in motorsports to be able to bounce back and forth and drive different cars, but at a certain point, you have to keep the focus to a minimum and maybe that time has passed for me.”

WATCH! The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race: 7 p.m. ET Saturday, FOX Sports 1