Kurt Busch will become the fourth NASCAR driver to attempt the Memorial Day weekend marathon, driving in the 98th Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday. Busch will join his Stewart-Haas Racing boss, Tony Stewart, who did it in 1999 and 2001, and former Sprint Cup drivers Robby Gordon (who did it five times) and John Andretti (twice) as the only drivers to do the double.
Busch, who qualified 12th in an entry fielded by Andretti Autosports, will start in Row 4 of the 33-car grid at Indy. He’ll then fly by private jet to Concord, N.C., where he will compete in NASCAR’s longest event, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he was 28th fastest (189.553 miles per hour) during Thursday’s pole qualifying.
So, what compelled Busch to attempt the grueling feat?
“I’m a racer,’’ he said. “Tony Stewart is a racer. Robby Gordon is a racer and John Andretti is a racer. This is a true test of what your commitment level is on being a racer. There are so many practices back and forth, the travel, the logistics — 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.’’
While Busch proved himself a quick study in getting up to speed in the Indy car, posting a practice lap of 230.922 m.p.h. last Saturday before submitting a four-lap, 10-mile qualifying average of 230.782, he was forced to go to a backup car when he sideswiped the wall between Turns 1 and 2 during practice last Monday. Busch will retain his starting position despite going to a backup.
“I’m glad I experienced it,’’ Busch said. “I might sound stupid by saying that I’m glad I wrecked at 220 m.p.h., but if I didn’t put myself in that position, I would have done that on Sunday, possibly 50 laps into the race. That’s how you have to advance through life is to learn from your mistakes.
“It was a mistake that I wholeheartedly put myself in. It’s because I just started to feel comfortable [in the car]. I just let my guard down a little bit, and that IndyCar just up and bit me.’’
On Sunday, Busch hopes to find a comfort zone, but that’s not to suggest he’ll be content to just cruise for 1,100 miles. He’ll try to push the envelope, as has been his custom.
“Memorial Day weekend is about our military and the red, white, and blue all the time,’’ Busch said. “But Memorial Day weekend is a time for motorsports to shine. It starts with [the Formula One race in] Monaco, it goes through Indy, and ends in Charlotte. I’m doing this for a lot of different reasons, but at the end of the day I think motorsports can use the shot in the arm, to go, ‘You know what? This is a guy who has never been in an Indy car, we want to watch that race, then we want to follow him to Charlotte to see what he can do down there running that full 600 miles.’ ”
Pressure is off for Kanaan
Reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan, a fan favorite, will start Sunday’s race from the inside of Row 6, in the No. 16 starting position. However, Kanaan showed his car was capable of going to the front — in a hurry — when he posted the fastest lap during Friday’s Carb Day practice, the final tune-up.
Driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, Kanaan topped the speed chart with a lap of 227.838 m.p.h. Kanaan’s teammate, Scott Dixon, was second fastest (227.773 m.p.h.), while KV Racing Technology’s Townsend Bell was third (227.221).
Dixon’s team won $50,000 for its victory in the pit stop competition, defeating the crew of rookie Sage Karam in the final.
“I’m starting with no pressure, which is kind of the way I like it,’’ said Kanaan, who will attempt to become the first repeat winner — and sixth overall — since fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves last won back-to-back races in 2001 and 2002.
“It’s not an excuse. We had a poor qualifying day,’’ Kanaan said of his four-lap average of 229.922. “I like my chances. I think the field this year is even tougher than last year. Last year, you had nine guys in the field that could win. This year, I think it’s double.’’
Kanaan ended nearly a decade of frustration last year when he overtook leader Ryan Hunter-Reay in the first turn of a restart with three laps to go. Three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, one of Kanaan’s closest friends, got loose and crashed into the retaining wall exiting Turn 2, bringing out the final caution that delivered Kanaan the victory.
It enabled Kanaan, who had chased his tail his entire career trying to capture the Indy 500, to soak up the adulation of the crowd as he did a three-lap victory tour under the yellow flag.
“I had fooled myself for a couple of years by saying that I’d be OK with the fact that I might not win this race in my career,’’ said Kanaan, who finished runner-up in 2004 and third in 2003 and 2012. “It changed everything when I crossed the finish line last year. I’m so glad I did. It’s still overwhelming and it’s still really special.’’
Jimmie Johnson and Ed Carpenter Jr. will be pole sitters with a purpose in their respective races Sunday.
Johnson, the six-time and reigning NASCAR champion, captured the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 with a fast lap of 194.911 m.p.h. Johnson, who was the last driver to win the 600 from the pole in 2009, expressed the hope his first pole victory of the season — and 33d of his career — would put him in a position to end a 13-race winless streak.
“It was a really strong lap,’’ Johnson said. “I’m very pleased with it. We knew we had a great racecar, so it was nice to get out there and work our way through the three segments [of NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format] and get it done.’’
Carpenter is hoping to finish the job as well after the owner/driver of the No. 20 Chevrolet captured the Indy 500 pole for the second year in a row, posting a four-lap average run of 231.067 m.p.h., bumping James Hinchcliffe (230.839) from the top of the speed chart during last Sunday’s Fast Nine shootout.
“I was surprised last year and didn’t expect to do it this year with such deep competition,’’ said Carpenter, who led for 37 laps last year but finished 10th. This year, Carpenter will lead the fastest 33-car field in race history (229.382 m.p.h. average) to the green flag.
“After going through this last year and not winning the race, I’ve been so much more determined,’’ Carpenter said. “Now it’s all about the race, and we want to close the deal.’’