INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Kurt Busch stepped out of the IndyCar, raised his arms in triumph, and hugged his girlfriend.
Busch’s crew squeezed their way toward him down the slender Indianapolis Motor Speedway pit road for fist bumps and well wishes. His face red, throat dry, and hair slicked in sweat, Busch tossed his helmet in the No. 26.
He needed a break after a grueling run in the Indianapolis 500 — but it won’t last long.
Busch successfully completed the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, taking the first step in his bid to become the second driver to finish the prestigious race as well as the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. After the finish, he darted off to catch flights for his night race in Concord, North Carolina.
The first leg of Busch’s racing doubleheader was a total smash, as the NASCAR champion-turned-Indy rookie made it look easy at the Brickyard. Busch finished sixth in Indy after starting 12th.
“It was an incredible journey to sniff the lead of the Indy 500,” Busch said.
It’s 500 miles down, 600 ahead.
He was still dressed in his firesuit when he took a seat in the back of an Indiana State Trooper’s car and pulled out of the garage at 3:30 p.m.
“We were supposed to be headed to the chopper but we’re missing a 9 year old,” Busch said, referring to his girlfriend’s son, Houston.
Once they found him, Busch was off to catch the Cessna Citation X to Charlotte Motor Speedway. His girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, tweeted a photo of Busch and Houston asleep on the Cessna. He landed at about 4:50 p.m., less than 90 minutes after he left Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Busch missed the mandatory NASCAR driver’s meeting and will start in the back of the field for the Coca-Cola 600 after he qualified 28th in the series’ longest race of the season. He didn’t care after he overachieved at Indy.
“I wasn’t a top-five driver,” Busch said to one member of his team. “The car was.”
Team owner Michael Andretti made a quick stop by the car for a huge hug on his way toward finding winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“Nice drive,” Andretti said. “Rookie of the year, buddy.”
“The Double” has been attempted by just three drivers, the last being Robby Gordon in 2004. Only one, Tony Stewart in 2001, successfully completed the two races, finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
With the eyes of the racing world on him, Busch was cool, confident and well rested, getting about nine hours of sleep the night before race day.
Busch was all smiles before the race. Fans shouted encouragement at Busch as he rode a golf cart through Gasoline Alley, one yelling: “Good luck today, Kurt, times two!” Busch spent time with his parents, Driscoll and Houston, and received pre-race encouragement from racing heavyweights like car owner Chip Ganassi and rapper and actor Ice-T.
“Go get ’em,” Ice-T said.
Busch kept the schedule light Sunday morning, attending mass with his family in his motorhome. He watched a little “Gilligan’s Island” and got a sendoff from his parents, Tom and Gaye Busch. She gave him a big hug and said it was a “mother’s duty to worry.”
“This one does make me more nervous,” she said. “It’s the Indy 500. It’s a special one … I’ll tell him good luck and be safe. Oh my gosh, please be safe.”
Even though the attempt wasn’t promoted heavily by IndyCar or NASCAR — the races air on different networks and multiple sponsors were involved, clouding the possibilities — Busch’s debut in Indianapolis brought some definite buzz to the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing,” the crown jewel race of the IndyCar Series and one of the most prestigious in the world.
His fellow NASCAR drivers were keeping track of his progress.
“He’s representing the entire sport,” NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Whether he knows it or not, he’s got a lot of people, drivers, crew and just about everyone on the infield pulling for him to do well because he is representing all of us.”
Busch’s whirlwind schedule ahead of race day included a rigorous regimen of training and several flights between the two racetracks to get himself ready for motorsports’ version of climbing Mount Everest. The 35-year-old Busch has trained like a boot camp cadet in Maryland to whip his body into top shape to handle the heat, travel and weariness that will come.
Busch’s diet was fine-tuned to get him ready for the grueling day. His Sunday morning breakfast included: Eggs, bacon, whole grain toast, water, coffee and 16 ounces of beet root juice. On the flight to North Carolina, Busch will try to eat oatmeal with raisins, a banana, beef jerky, beet root juice and sugar water with electrolytes infused with oxygen.
A big part of the challenge for Busch was getting used to the Indy car.
At 1,500 pounds, the cars are much lighter and have less horsepower than the 3,500-pound stock cars in NASCAR Busch usually drives. IndyCar drivers have to anticipate the next move faster, especially when cars race side-by-side. The contact so familiar among cars in a NASCAR race is out of the question in IndyCar, where the cars are more susceptible to high-flying flips and the open cockpits leave drivers exposed to flying debris.
Busch needed about 70 laps to find his comfort level inside the snug open cockpit. Once he did, Busch was able to leave zip his way out of the high teens from the first half of the race into the top 10. Driscoll crossed her fingers and craned her neck from the pits to catch the thrilling final laps.
About 5 minutes after the race, Busch’s had a flicker of peace all alone on a golf cart outside the Andretti garage.
“Where am I supposed to be,” Busch asked, as he toweled off his face.
On his way to North Carolina, for his shot at history.
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