2004 NASCAR Cup champion Kurt Busch will drive for Andretti Autosport in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.
Busch, 35, who competes for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Sprint Cup Series, will be the first NASCAR driver to attempt the Indy-Charlotte double since Robby Gordon made his sixth and final run at the feat in 2004.
Although John Andretti, cousin to team owner Michael Andretti, was the first driver to try the open wheel/stock car combo on racing’s most storied weekend in 1994, Busch will be the first NASCAR champion to attempt the double since his current boss, Tony Stewart, completed all 1,100-miles in 2001.
“I’m looking to establish myself in motorsports like I always have through the years,” Busch told RACER. “A couple years back, I did the Gator Nationals in a Pro Stock car to try another discipline in motorsports other than stock cars. In the years before that, I ran in the 24 Hours of Daytona.
“So I’ve done road course stuff. I’ve done dirt tracks. I’ve done drag racing, sports cars, stock cars, trucks, Nationwide all the good stuff in motorsports. I think this is the last item on a complete list.”
Talk about adding the crown jewel to an already impressive motorsports bucket list. Even Busch acknowledges that competing in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day will “rank at the top” of his achievements.
“I grew up in a NASCAR ladder system,” Busch said. “I’ve driven everything from a Hobby Stock car with a NASCAR label on it to a Late Model, to a topless tour car, a truck, my Busch car, Cup car. So to challenge myself at the elite level of open-wheel is a whole different ball of wax.”
But with Michael Andretti’s pedigree in IndyCar, Busch has a solid opportunity to make his open-wheel debut with a championship organization.
“To me, the Indy 500 is a spectacle,” Busch said. “It’s an intriguing event. One of the components to make this first step a successful step is having a shot to win. It’s not just to go for show.
“To have the Andretti name backing me in an Andretti Autosport car – as the fifth car – I can’t think of a better way to start off the double – and then knowing that I’ll have a Stewart-Haas Automation Chevy waiting for me when I return to Charlotte – also with a shot to win. Part of this whole strategic event is to give us a legitimate chance to win.”
Busch’s first experience in an open-wheel car came with Bobby Rahal at Sebring in 2003 (LEFT). Last May 9, he tested with Andretti and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and earned his IndyCar rookie eligibility (ABOVE).
While Busch hoped to race at the Brickyard last year, the time crunch made it impossible. But with a handshake deal from Andretti last month, the pieces started coming together.
Despite the obvious challenge of adapting to open-wheel cars, Busch can afford to be optimistic, given Andretti Autosport’s recent history. The 2012 IndyCar Series championship organization placed three cars among the top four in last year’s Indy 500.
Although Busch admits he doesn’t “know the ins and outs” of open-wheel racing, he’s relying on his “oval experience” to gain confidence throughout the process.
“The number one challenge, though, is going to be traffic, dirty air in an IndyCar,” Busch said. “We can try to simulate what we want to during the first week of practice, but nothing is going to simulate when they drop the green flag on 33 IndyCars. That’s the biggest challenge: being able to react the right way in traffic and not overreact with any type of throttle input, steering input – and trying to keep the panic level down.”
Busch is expected to pilot the No. 26 entry which finished second in the Indy 500 last year with rookie Carlos Munoz behind the wheel.
The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion picked up two sponsors over the weekend. Basis Watch will track the driver’s fitness and sleep levels throughout the trek. Understanding how grueling this exercise will be, Busch has started training to prepare for the month of May.
“I’ve gone to a boot camp-style workout regimen,” Busch said. “I’m still continuing a lot of hard cardio. But just with core strength-training and executing different challenges while my heart rate is up, it’s going to make me better all the way around even and it will improve my effort on the stock car side.”
Cessna will provide transportation over what is expected to be more than 20 hours of air travel. Logistically, Busch will have a few practice session conflicts, but he has the full support of his Cup team owners Gene Haas and Stewart, along with NASCAR, Andretti and IndyCar.
Last month at IndyCar Media Day, Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s president of operations and competition, said he believed Busch’s participation could trigger a trend.
“I think if one of those guys comes up and has a good experience, a lot more will come.” Walker said.
Busch attended his first Indianapolis 500 as a spectator during his Penske Racing days. But when he returns to the Speedway in May, it will be all business.
“I went to watch with Roger one year to feel the excitement, listen to ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ and be a part of all the pre-race festivities,” Busch said. “So I’ve already experienced that excitement and don’t necessary need to take it all in again. I need to be focused on when I get belted in and what my decisions are after that.”