Kurt Busch ready for challenge

Kurt Busch’s professional drag-racing career might be a one-and-done venture.

Busch is making his Pro Stock debut at the NHRA Gatornationals this week. But with NASCAR having condensed its 2012 schedule by removing the early season off weekend, this could be Busch’s final foray into the straight-line sport – at least at this level.

If so, he wants to make it a memorable run.

”It’s just a whole new world,” Busch said Thursday. ”I’m really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a whole different challenge. But at the end of the end of the day, it’s just a race car at a race track, and I’m here to put the best effort down.”

Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion who is tied for the points lead this season, got a small taste of drag racing last year in Gainesville. He spent four days at the track, but heavy rain and flooding postponed the Sportsman class and allowed him to make just two passes.

”I said, ‘Heck, the next time I run, I’ve got to be in a pro division,”’ Busch said. ”So we ramped it up.”

Did he ever.

Busch got manufacturer backing and corporate sponsorship, then signed up for one of the NHRA’s most competitive fields of the year.

”There’s 30 cars registered,” he said. ”That’s ridiculous. I thought there would be like 18 and two guys would go home. There’s going to be just about the same amount of guys that make the show that are going home.”

Qualifying runs are Friday and Saturday, with the top 16 cars advancing to Sunday’s finale.

Busch has high expectations, especially after some speedy practice runs at Bradenton Motorsports Park. He also got tips from Pro Stock regular and fellow Dodge driver Allen Johnson.

”He’s going to do fine, I’m sure,” Johnson said. ”He’s been in a lot of pressure situations, a lot bigger than this, so I don’t think that part’s going to get him. He’s really smooth, has a good feel for the clutch and the throttle, and has learned the importance of staging properly and shift points.

”If everything goes as planned, and the car doesn’t give us any hiccups, I really expect him to qualify in the top half (of the field).”

Busch got hooked on drag racing at the U.S. Nationals in 2008, when he watched the event with legendary driver Don Prudomme. About the same time, a drag strip was being built near his home in Charlotte.

Not long after, his wife bought him some seat time at the famed Roy Hill drag-racing school. Busch then picked up a 1970 Dodge Challenger off eBay for $15,000 and has been tinkering since.

NHRA regulars welcomed Busch, mostly because of the extra attention they know he will bring to the sport. Famed NASCAR drivers Richard Petty and David Pearson briefly did the same in the 1960s. But NASCAR’s grueling, 36-race schedule makes it difficult for full-time drivers to devote attention elsewhere.

”That’s great that he loves drag racing,” said 15-time Funny Car champion John Force. ”He’s great at what he does in NASCAR. Over here, let’s see what he can do. I guarantee he’ll be at the top of his game. If he focused at this 100 percent, he’d become a champion.

”At the end of the day, he’s going to bring people with him and he can educate them, so this is a big opportunity for us to have the likes of NASCAR over here.”

Johnson said Busch’s presence means even more to the Pro Stock division, the NHRA’s third series behind Top Fuel and Funny Car.

”We need some more hype in Pro Stock,” Johnson said. ”NHRA doesn’t give us our due. ESPN doesn’t give us our due. We’ve got to figure out some ways to get ESPN to care about us, to get us more TV time. Shoot, this is one way for sure. Bringing any star over – a football player, a band member, somebody with his status – that’s huge.”

Busch understands all that, even though it was never his goal.

”I’m just a new guy,” Busch said. ”I don’t want the extra attention. But I know what I can do for the sport by bringing the attention over and creating excitement for the Gatornationals. Just being a regular guy and going out there to have some fun? I can’t do that. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it.”

Even if it’s for one event.

Busch already has compared the NASCAR and NHRA schedules and found a drag-racing event in Denver in late July that coincides with another one of NASCAR’s off weeks. He hasn’t decided whether he will try to make that one. How he performs in Gainesville could be a factor, though.

”It’s just tough because our schedule is so demanding,” Busch said. ”If there was an NHRA race in the middle of the week, yeah, we’re going to be there. … Anytime I can be at a racetrack, whether it’s a road race, a dirt track, a quarter-mile drag strip, I’m going to be there. But at this level, to compete in Pro Stock, to do it professionally, to have the sponsors lined up, to cross-promote, this is just one opportunity right now.

”We’ll see what the future holds.”