NASCAR star Kurt Busch says he experienced a “stop and smell the roses” moment Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during final Carburetion Day practice for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500.
More likely, that was the smell of E85 fuel mixed in with burning Firestone rubber, funnel cakes and beer. But make no mistake — Busch is totally immersed in the moment and his pursuit of “Double Duty.”
“To me, it’s getting closer to race time,” said Busch, anticipating a full plate of Sunday driving that will begin at tradition-laden IMS and conclude at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., with the Sprint Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600. That’s 1,100 miles of racing with a 430-mile jet flight between.
“I have to be focused, put the blinders on,” said Busch, whose top speed of 224.684 mph during Friday’s one-hour practice placed him 15th on the final overall chart.
“I’ve had enough time to smell the roses. It’s race time. I’m starting next to Scott Dixon. I have a responsibility to be a race-car driver.”
The 2004 Cup champion, Busch is poised to become the fourth driver to attempt “The Double,” joining John Andretti (1994), Robby Gordon (five occasions between 1997 and 2004) and Tony Stewart (1999 and 2001).
“Everything is done,” said Busch, driving here for Andretti Autosport, the team owned by former open-wheel champion Michael Andretti. “The Andretti guys have worked their tails off helping me prepare cars and helping me progress through being a rookie.
“These cars are different to drive. The draft and the tow are much more violent than what it is in NASCAR. The simulation of 33 cars won’t happen until Sunday. I give myself a B-minus right now. I still have to work through traffic and to pass cars and let others feel confident around me. I need the first half of the race to do such.
“It’s exciting. It’s a moment in sports. I can’t wait to be part of it.”
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, is the only driver to have completed all 1,110 miles while dealing with the requisite logistics. Stewart also is co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which fields Busch’s No. 41 Chevrolet in Cup.
Busch logged 53 trouble-free laps around IMS’ 2.5-mile oval on Carb Day, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ final practice for the month of May and Kurt’s first time on-track since his lone miscue.
Last Sunday, Busch qualified 12th with a four-lap/10-mile average of 230.782 mph. Turning his attention to race setup on Monday, Busch’s practice ended when his No. 26 Dallara/Honda made right-side contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
Stewart, naturally, didn’t hesitate to zing Busch, who is in his first season at SHR. “He asked me if I needed a bulldozer to move the Turn 2 wall,” said Busch, one of the few moments when he actually cracked a smile.
“Tony Stewart set the benchmark in this race in the procedure of ‘The Double’ — [finishing] lead lap on both races ,” said Busch, a 35-year-old native of Las Vegas.
“Top of the field is what I’m shooting for. If I can maneuver into that position through the first half of the race, I don’t need to get overconfident and think I can chew on that much more — try to do that much more, try to get aggressive, make a mistake.”
Busch’s day is scheduled to start shortly after 11 a.m. CDT for what is billed as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” When he completes the 200-lap/500-mile distance, or earlier if he falls out, Busch will board a jet for the flight to CMS. The longest race on the Cup schedule will start shortly after 5 p.m.
His Carb Day stint was Busch’s longest in traffic and the turbulence created by the low-slung, open-cockpit cars at 200-plus mph.
“With the bigger packs out there, it dirties up the air,” Busch said. “It makes you very busy inside the car. Today I was able to feel busy, to stay on top of the adjustments and to communicate to the crew what I think for Sunday’s race. I think I made nice steps to get back up on my horse, to feel the car again, feel confident.”
Second-generation open-wheel driver Graham Rahal said Busch’s presence in Gasoline Alley certainly has generated welcome buzz for the series.
“But I don’t think it’s been a circus,” said Rahal, who drives for father and 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “I mean, Kurt obviously brings some attention. But it’s not going to change this race any.
“He makes the awareness maybe a little bit better because it’s something different. I hope Kurt enjoys it. More than anything, I hope he enjoys it and sees how special this race is.”