When Kurt Busch first took on the challenge of attempting to race in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca Cola 600 on Sunday, his goal was to finish each of the two races.
Merely driving 1,100 miles in a day may not satisfy him.
“I’d love to finish in the top half of the field at Indy,” Busch said. “I’d love to stay out of trouble all day and just experience it all. But … with the comfort level that I will gain, I’ll want more.
“I have a chance to win with an Andretti Autosport car, and I’ve got a chance to win the Coke 600 with a Stewart-Haas car.”
Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, will make his IndyCar debut at 11:15 a.m., Central time Sunday in the 98th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Then, he’ll jet and helicopter 91 minutes to Charlotte for the 5 p.m. start of NASCAR’s longest race.
His will be the ninth attempt at the grueling double and first since Robbie Gordon tried it in 2004.
The eight previous double-dips have been divided among three drivers — John Andretti (1994), Gordon (1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004) and Tony Stewart (1999 and 2001). Stewart, now Busch’s boss at Stewart-Haas Racing, posted the best result, finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001, becoming the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles in the two races.
“This has been a dream come true,” said Busch, 35. “The whole the excitement level of getting in the (open-wheel Indy car) car for the first time last year in the rookie procedural event … that deer in the headlights feeling is starting to settle in. This is serious. The competitor in me is starting to take over on wanting to be as competitive as I can be.”
Busch qualified 10th for the Indianapolis 500. (He’ll start 28th at the Coca Cola 600.) But he crashed while completing a practice lap of 223 mph at Indy on Monday and will be forced to a back-up car.
“I was starting to feel comfortable,” said Busch. “That’s when I made the mistake of just letting my guard down or settling into that long-run type mentality, whereas with an Indy car you have to be on edge. You have to keep track of where you are at all times and adjustments in the car. Maybe I just didn’t keep up with keeping the car underneath me.”
Despite Busch’s spin coming out of the second turn and hard hit into the outside wall, Eddie Cheever, a former Indianapolis 500 champion and now an ABC analyst, gives Busch a chance at being a top-three finisher.
“I am totally impressed by everything he has done in the car,” Cheever said. “Going out and turning into turn one when you’re up at speed, and engineers have told you, ‘Don’t take your foot off the throttle,’ you’re talking to yourself telling yourself it’s going to be OK. That’s a difficult moment even in a race car driver who’s done it his whole life, to be committed to doing that.”
“He’s been incredibly fast. He got very lucky and hit the wall at the right angle. Other than that, I am just impressed. When he had to go out and do his qualifying run that’s 230 (mph), that is really moving the mail. That’s fast. He is talented and incredibly brave.”
Busch has received input and advice from NASCAR teammates Stewart and Danica Patrick, who led 19 laps in the 2005 Indy 500 when she finished fourth.
“Tony said, ‘You know the IndyCars have less horsepower,’ ” Busch said. “They have less pick-up, acceleration, and feel. Even though the cars weigh 1,500 pounds, IndyCars don’t accelerate like stock cars do. So you have to look ahead. You have to anticipate. You have to digest what’s happening in front of you when guys get side by side, how quick you’re going to catch them.”
Busch, unlike most IndyCar rookies, has the experience of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.
“There’s not anything surprising about the track,” he said. “My comfort level of racing there for 15 years in a Cup car gives me the confidence to know where I am … and know how each of the corners are shaped. But an IndyCar is very temperamental with wind changes, temperature changes, more so than our Cup cars. You’ve got to keep that in mind with every lap, where the wind is.”
If Busch enjoys success in the double, it could lead to other NASCAR drivers trying their hand at Indianapolis, especially if they’re already locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as Busch probably is based on his win at Martinsville Speedway.
“The opportunities are there,” said six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “A lot of it is just sponsor-driven. But if any top driver from NASCAR showed interest in Andretti Green or Penske or Ganassi and had the sponsors to go through with it, I think they could get a seat. I just don’t know how ambitious many closed-body drivers are to try Indy.
“In my situation, I have a wife that would have to approve me going to Indy. We had a deal that prior to having children, I could. And I didn’t get my opportunity before having kids. The start time was the big problem there. You couldn’t physically do both the way the start times worked out. I hope that encourages others.”
Busch’s younger brother Kyle, an 11-year Sprint Cup veteran with 29 career wins, would like to take a shot at the double someday.
“I’ve always said if I could get the chance, I’d do it, too,” Kyle said. “But I’d do it when I had a Cup championship. Fortunately Kurt has that going for him, so he can go do whatever he wants.”