INDIANAPOLIS - Fifty-three trouble-free laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Friday morning officially marked the end of Kurt Busch's accelerated course in open-wheel racing. Almost mercifully, the countdown to the NASCAR star's pursuit of "Double Duty'' began.
"Everything is done, you have nothing left but the race,'' Busch said during a post-Carb Day news conference previewing Sunday's's 98th running of the Indianapolis 500. "I have a responsibility to be a race car driver.''
And the Indy 500 is only the half of it. Busch's day is scheduled to start with the drop of the green flag shortly after noon here for what is billed as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.'' When he completes the 500-mile (200 laps) distance, or earlier if he falls out, Busch will board a jet for the 430-mile flight to Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., for the Coca-Cola 600. The longest race on the Sprint Cup Series schedule will start shortly after 6 p.m.
The 2004 Cup champion, Busch is poised to become the fourth driver to attempt "Double Duty,'' joining John Andretti (1994), Robby Gordon (five occasions between 1997 and 2004) and Tony Stewart (1999 and 2001). A three-time Cup champion, Stewart 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 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS in Cup racing.
"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 [at the Indy 500]. 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 logged his lone misstep here on Monday, the day after he qualified 12th in the 33-car field with a four-lap/10-mile average of 230.782 mph. That chore checked-off, Busch and his Andretti Autosport crew turned their attention to race-day setup. But Busch's day ended 95 minutes into the five-hour session when his No. 26 Suretone Dallara/Honda made right-side contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
Stewart, naturally, didn't hesitate to zing Busch, who has been assigned teammate Marco Andretti's backup chassis for his debut in the world's biggest auto race. "[Stewart] asked me if I needed a bulldozer to move the Turn 2 wall,'' Busch deadpanned, one of the few moments when he actually cracked a smile.
His Carb Day stint was Busch's longest in traffic and the turbulence created by the low-slung, open-cockpit cars that at 1,600 pounds are half-as-heavy as a Cup machine.
"With the bigger packs out there, it dirties-up the air,' said Busch, whose top speed Friday of 224.684 mph put him 15th on the overall chart. "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.''
Andretti, son of team-owner and former open-wheel champion Michael Andretti, said the mercurial Busch has been a welcome Gasoline Alley addition to one of the Verizon IndyCar Series' high-profile organizations.
"I think Kurt is more humble now, after Monday, but he was definitely more Kurt-Busch-in-a-good-sense as far as he's a racer,'' Andretti said. "He just jumped in, he's willing to learn. He was being a sponge, grilling all of us as much as he can for information -- what to do, why do we do this -- and asking the right questions, the appropriate questions. I think that shows basically his experience -- he's asking the right questions. That was the key.''
Busch began this quest with an IndyCar refresher test in late April, then aced IMS' three-step Rookie Orientation Program. While he has lost count of his air miles this month, a trip into Indy's wonderful, tradition-laden record book beckons.
"As each day gets closer, you're getting more anxious to get it done because you've been preparing for so long, experiencing so many new things,'' Busch said. "I'm the least-prepared of the individuals who have done 'The Double.' They've all come from the open-wheel world and settled into the NASCAR world. For me, the lack of experience in the IndyCar world is what makes this fun, exciting, challenging.
"This is a true test of what your commitment level is on being a racer. The fun-meter is pegged right now. I'm having a blast doing it. You just have to know it comes with a lot of hard work.''