By Patrick Reynolds
Jerry Baker stood at the podium and microphone while addressing the large gathering of fans, media, and auto racing VIPs. Dressed in a red polo shirt and khaki pants on the sunny and warm day, Bakerâ€™s voice carried clearly and strongly over the PA system of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was presiding over the public driverâ€™s meeting held along pit road one day prior to the Indianapolis 500.
Baker introduced the field of drivers one at a time, as each was presented with a ring commemorating their starting position on the grid. He named 32 drivers and 32 rings were awarded. The entire starting lineup was in attendance, but one.
The one was Kurt Busch.
Busch was excused from the meeting so he could be behind the wheel of his usual Stewart-Haas Racing car for a two practice sessions at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He was flying back and forth between Indy and Charlotte during May in preparation for â€œThe Double,â€ competing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day.
The Saturday meeting that is attended by thousands of fans is more ceremonial them purposeful. The directions and procedures the drivers receive are accurate, but at that point, they have attended several meeting throughout the month of May. They are well informed of all the information explained for the popular meeting for the fans and speedway guests. There was no harm in Busch not attending.
The track did not want to make a point of Busch not being there, so no mention was made. They simply addressed the 32 drivers attending.
Busch qualified his Andretti Autosport ride twelfth for the Indy 500 on Sunday, one week before the race. During a practice session on Monday, the next day, he crashed hard enough to require another car for the 500.
The team prepared Marco Andrettiâ€™s Detroit primary car as Buschâ€™s new Indy 500 ride. The crew changed the car over from a street circuit set up to Indyâ€™s superspeedway design.
The Memorial Day racing weekend began on track with Thursday NASCAR Sprint Cup practice and qualifying in Charlotte for the 600. He timed in 28th.
â€œWe threw our qualifying run away (Thursday) knowing we would be starting in the back (due to knowing he would miss the 600â€™s drivers meeting). We made an attempt at it but it was not a full-fledged effort because we spent 90% of yesterday (practice) in race trim,â€ Busch said.
On Friday morning in Indianapolis, NASCAR and Indycar team owner Chip Ganassi commented about Buschâ€™s 1100 mile race day goal.
â€œI think heâ€™s been doing a good job. Thank God he didnâ€™t get hurt there the other day (in the Monday crash),â€ said Ganassi.
â€œItâ€™s a tall order to do two things. We did it in 2001 with Tony Stewart. He drove for us and did the Double. Itâ€™s a lot to have to concentrate on both. The cars are so different. The teams, the culture, the rulesâ€¦ itâ€™s hard to keep all of that straight in your head. I think part of keeping all that straight in your head can, from time to time, take away from some concentration,â€ Ganassi said.
â€œKurtâ€™s a great race car driver. He can do the driving part,â€ said Ganassi. â€œBut the thing I am always concerned about, is that last little one or two percent that you need to really, really, be sharp. I think itâ€™s a tall order. (But) heâ€™ll be fine.â€
Within two hours of Ganassi speaking, Busch had completed Indyâ€™s final practice for the 500 in the newly prepared Andretti car.
â€œI had to get back up on my horse,â€ Busch said. â€œIt felt good to get back out there and get comfortable.â€
â€œIâ€™ve been in three different cars through this whole month. One was my rookie orientation, the car that I qualified, and this one here. Each one has its own little characteristic to it,â€ said Busch.
â€œThis morning I was a bit anxious to get back in the car and see how I was going to feel. And thereâ€™s a lot to be said about guys when they hit the wallâ€¦ they lose their confidence a little bit. I didnâ€™t lose my confidence I just needed to make sure that I didnâ€™t over adjust the car when I got back in traffic. So I settled back in once I was able to make laps. When we jumped back up on the speed chart, thatâ€™s when they threw an adjustment at the car based off of my comfort level. So the team is reading me well, Iâ€™m reading them well. I need to do a better job of just reading the traffic and that will help our Sunday effort,â€ Busch said.
â€œThe draft and the tow are much more violent than what it is in a NASCAR car, and the simulation of 33 cars wonâ€™t happen until Sunday. I still have to work through traffic, pass cars, and let others feel confident around me, and I need the first half of the race to do such,â€ said Busch.
Busch sounded very studious in his Indianapolis preparation. While the other 32 drivers in the Indy starting field were taking part in pre-500 activities Saturday, he practiced the NASCAR machine 26th in the first practice session and 16th quick in the second.
Said Busch, â€œFrom my time here (Indy) in the NASCAR car, you go down into turn one (at the Brickyard 400â€™s start) and it is the most brake you have used all weekend. The draft just sucks you right on in. They said that this morning at the driverâ€™s meeting; they said it in the rookie meeting. The draft and the air will just pull you right on in there. So Iâ€™ll definitely be prepared for it, (Iâ€™ve) watched videos for it. Itâ€™s part of this spectacle, though. It is part of the presentation and the protocol to be formed three wide and to parade down the front straightaway and then fan out and fill up the front straightaway. Itâ€™s exciting. Itâ€™s a moment in sports and I canâ€™t wait to be part of it and apply the knowledge that I have to corner through one and two and then get on with the race.â€
As the days ticked by and race day approached, Busch spoke of his NASCAR car owner, Stewart who has competed in the Indy-Charlotte double before.
â€œTony Stewart set the benchmark in this (procedure of The Double) years ago- lead lap in both races,â€ Busch said. â€œThe top half of the field is what Iâ€™m shooting for. If I can maneuver into that position through the first half of the race, I donâ€™t need to get overconfident and think that I can chew on that much more and try to get too aggressive and make a mistake. To me, it is about executing and being a professional about this whole thing.â€
Stewart finished sixth in Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001. John Andretti and Robbie Gordon had also competed in both races but not with the results Stewart had.
â€œHeâ€™s (Stewart) has been wanting me to stay on top of giving him information, heâ€™s been giving information back,â€ said Busch. â€œHe asked me if I need a bulldozer to move the turn two wall (jokingly referring to his crash.)â€
Busch said â€œI can see his eyes light up every time I go over and talk to him about all of this.â€
When the Indy 500 went green Busch started twelfth and settled into fifteenth in the opening ten laps. After 300 miles he raced sixteenth, but the next pit stop adjustment allowed him to race into the top-ten.
Crashes eliminating top contenders Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, and Ed Carpenter allowed Busch to move up. He was sixth on the final restart and held his position to the checkered flag, only five spots behind Andretti Autosport teammate winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Michael Andretti said he â€œwas proud to have him this month. Hats off to him. He did a really good job. He came in here with the right mindset. He came in with a lot of experience, but still coming in with the mindset of a rookie, like I said. (Busch) Went to school and he was a great student.
â€œYou could tell the way he ran the first part of the race he fell back, but you could tell he was learning. When he started feeling confident, he started picking them off,â€ said Andretti.
â€œHe told me in the end he thought he had a car of doing better, but a rookie driver. I said â€˜You have nothing to be ashamed of. You did a great job all month.â€™ It was a pleasure having him on our team. I think everybody on the team really liked having him on,â€ Andretti said.
Busch arrived successfully in Charlotte and as expected started near the rear of the field. He raced his way into the top twenty but suffered a blown engine and was credited with a 40th place finish in the 600. His completed total on the day was 906 of the 1100 miles. He remained optimistic despite not finishing.
â€œIt was a good battle, though. I was hoping to do 1,100 miles today. I canâ€™t let what happened here (Charlotte) dampen the mood on what happened in Indianapolis,â€ said Busch.
â€œToday is a memory Iâ€™ll have forever,â€ Busch said. â€œIt was a challenge I put forth for myself. I enjoyed it. I soaked it all in up there (Indy). It was a grand stage to stand on and represent NASCAR.â€
The day before the Indianapolis 500, thousands of race fans were excited the see just about all of the drivers. Along with that large gathered audience, other celebrities, and speedway guests, Baker conducted the ceremony, and excitement and optimism built for the race. Even without Busch.
Twenty four hours later when the 500 was over, Michael Andretti ended the day with what may have been the most optimistic statement of all.
â€œMaybe weâ€™ll do it again sometime.â€
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Motor Week LIVE! Mondays 7pm ET/ 4pm PT onwww.racersreunionradio.com