Kurt Busch sixth in Indy 500 as Ryan Hunter-Reay wins thriller

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch (26) finished an impressive sixth in Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Phillip Abbott

Kurt Busch set out to make history on Sunday, and he did just that, with an epic performance at the most historic race track in the world.

In his inaugural start in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the 35-year-old Las Vegas native wheeled his Andretti Autosport Dallara/Honda to a sixth-place finish in Indianapolis 500, matching the result of his boss, Tony Stewart, when Stewart did the Indy 500– Coca-Cola 600 double in 2001.

Of course, there’s a difference.

When Stewart finished sixth at Indy in ’01, it was his 25th career start in the IndyCar Series, where he won the series championship in 1997. Busch, on the other hand, had never attempted an IndyCar start before, which makes his run all that more impressive. And he did it in Marco Andretti’s backup car, after a crash in practice on Monday destroyed Busch’s primary car.

Busch’s teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, won the race by 0.600 seconds over Helio Castroneves, followed by the Andretti Autosport cars of Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz.

The race went caution-free for the first 150 of 200 laps, which allowed Busch to build a rhythm gradually.

"I’m glad the race came to us," said Busch during a brief stop after landing at Concord (N.C.) Regional Airport. "To be able to jump in an Indy car and compete like that, I was just trying to be a student all along and it reminded me of my first Daytona 500. You can get caught up in the emotional side of it, and I needed time to settle into the car and it was great. The start went off really well — Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon helped usher me in line and off and running we went."

Busch said that while he was comfortable in the car, with his lack of experience, he didn’t feel like he could contend for the victory in the closing laps. "Those top-five guys who were racing hard at the end? I didn’t think I could mix it up with them," Busch said. "That was all I had."

Still, it was a fantastic and historic moment for Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, and it was clear he savored it, especially at the end.

Photos: Kurt Busch arrives in Charlotte for the start of the Coca-Cola 600

"It’s an amazing feeling to feel the air," said Busch of his first IndyCar competition. "You’re racing an invisible competitor — it’s the air out there, even though you see the five guys in front of you running hard and they’re on edge."

A student of history, Busch said he was touched by the passion of the race fans in Indianapolis.

"It was incredible," Busch said. "The emotional side of what it means to be a Midwesterner from Indiana and being a Hoosier, those people love their backyard race and that race is on a grand stage for the day."

So for Busch and his Andretti Autosport team — a team which has had plenty of heartache at Indy — it was a day of unfettered triumph: A race victory and four cars in the top six.

"Congratulations to Ryan Hunter-Reay," Busch said of the race winner, one of his Andretti Autosport teammates. "All the Andretti guys ran great and we came home sixth. I’m ecstatic. I’m very happy. I had no idea we’d be able to finish that well, and it was a great car that helped me do that.

"To me, it was the experience of a lifetime," he said. "All those Andretti Autosport guys are brilliant, and they really helped me all the way through this."