Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kurt Busch: The Deal Is Done

After spending close to a year doing little than staring across the room at each other (besides a brief encounter at the punch table), Kurt Busch and Andretti Autosport are finally dance partners for this year's running of the Indy 500. That means for the first time in 11 years there will be a driver attempting the double of the 500 and NASCAR's Coke 600 in Charlotte.

A deal that has been in the works for a while finally got done, and while details have to be hammered out, Busch said he's signed a contract and that they are moving forward. If he makes it to the starting line for both races, Busch will join John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart -- who happens to be the owner of his Cup car -- to accomplish the feat.

You knew this was gonna happen, come on, we all did. After the positive vibes that came from Busch's Speedway test last year, sooner or later he was going to be coming.

And to be honest, I couldn't be more thrilled. Per my usual I'm not going to even spend a second of time thinking about how this will "move the needle" because that's something I don't worry about because it is something I cannot control. While I'm guessing that there will be a very heightened interest in this year's race, my motivation for seeing this happen is just because it will be a lot of fun.

This is what Indy is supposed to be about, the best drivers in the world coming together to hash out who is the best. With the addition of Jacques Villeneuve (which I'm still a bit lukewarm about) the field will have an F1 World Champion, a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, several IndyCar champions and I believe six former 500 winners whose victories cover a span of 19 years. That's pretty cool.

Like him or hate him (and my feelings about Kurt Busch change pretty much daily...but while we are on the subject I never like Kyle Busch), he's a very talented driver. Very talented. That has sometimes gotten lost over the years thanks to a temper and a penchant for outbursts at the media, which has cost him a couple of rides in his career, but his drive last year with Furniture Row Racing was extremely impressive. I think there are only a handful of drivers that would've gotten Furniture Row into the Chase, and he is one of them.

I also think he's corralled his attitude a bit over the years, but what's left is this little edge that Bad Kurt might return, and that adds an extra storyline. All I hear from a lot of IndyCar fans is that someone with an edge, a la Paul Tracy, is missing from the paddock. Kurt getting a little feisty about something during May, especially during the race, might be extremely popcorn-worthy.

Busch is a bit of a throwback in that he is a guy who is interested in driving different forms of cars, from sports cars to dragsters. His interest in IndyCars goes back several years when he first tested a car for Bobby Rahal in 2003, and since then he's done everything from sports cars to dragsters. But for some reason, he finds IndyCar intriguing. Actually, I think a lot of Cup drivers find IndyCar intriguing, but for various reasons have no interest in trying it.

It will be interesting what will happen when May rolls around and he takes to the track with a bunch of other cars at speed. While his test was very solid -- he passed his rookie test and was turning laps at 218 mph -- the car was set up for comfort more than speed. Indy is all about trimming the car back, and then trimming it back some more, to try and find a way to balance technology and bravery enough to get a car to go 230 mph around a 100 year old race course. It's not as easy as it looks, and even with his skill and knowledge, a couple of test sessions won't close the learning curve between Busch and the regular drivers of the series.

What am I hoping for? I hope he qualifies well and runs the entire 500 miles...if he gets that out of the car it will be a heck of an accomplishment, and will hopefully whet his appetite for 2015 and maybe even beyond. I'm sure there are a legion of Cup fans that probably believe he's going to walk in and win the race, because Cup drivers are the "best in the world" (thanks for that, Darrell Waltrip), but I'd put him at a serious longshot. It's one thing to get to the front, like Carlos Munoz and AJ Allmendinger did last year, but it's a completely different thing to beat a deep, experienced field of open wheel drivers to the checkered flag.

I also hope that he brings a higher level of respect to the 500, too. Most of us on the IndyCar side don't really care what the Cup folks think, but since I dip my toe in both waters I've seen more and more over time that people are starting to get what IndyCar is about, and have more complimentary things to say about the series. I think what would help IndyCar and Cup (and they need it, despite what they say) is for people to become fans of BOTH series.

I'm starting to get that way. I went to a couple of Cup races last year and will be going to a couple more this year, and I have to admit they are a lot of fun. The people are nice and the racing is decent. Does NASCAR represent what I stand for when it comes to pure racing? Absolutely not. I don't like a lot of the rules or the manufactured drama -- or the Chase -- but I like it enough to call it a guilty pleasure. I watch IndyCar for my pure racing fix, and my loyalty definitely lies here, but Daytona is a pretty good time. Watching 43 cars come thundering at you in a big pack at 200 mph is a bit breathtaking the first time you see it.

I'd also hope that it brings more interest in drivers of both series doing the double. While the person I want to see try IndyCars -- Jimmie Johnson, ahem -- will never do it, I bet Allmendinger will try it someday, and it wouldn't surprise me if Kyle Larson did too. And I wouldn't be shocked one bit if Stewart gave it one more try, because no matter what he says, I don't believe him when he claims that a Brickyard 400 win is enough.

I'm not sure who on the IndyCar side right now would warrant the interest to get a Cup ride for a double bit, but given the rumors we've heard in the past I bet James Hinchcliffe gets a shot at it down the road. I also think Scott Dixon would adapt pretty quickly to a Cup car and could do pretty well too.

I hope that someone doing the double becomes a regular thing, because it's fun and interesting and adds a new twist to the race. And if it brings more talented drivers and ups the competition level of the 500, then I'm all for it.

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