With Indy 500 prep complete, Kurt Busch starts looking ahead to the Double

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Today was about getting back on the horse for Kurt Busch.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star is set to become the first driver since Robby Gordon in 2004 to run the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, and he will try to be the second to run all 1,100 miles of that arduous “Double.”

Up to last Monday, his preparations for the ‘500’ in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda had been relatively smooth. But that all changed when he got loose in Turn 2 and crashed hard in practice.

The Andretti camp has since moved him to one of Marco Andretti’s backup cars for Sunday’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And today on Carb Day, Busch took it out on track for the first time since his Monday incident.

He was only 15th-fastest in the final practice session with a quick lap of 224.684 miles per hour. But instead of speed, he was seeking to get more acclimated with running in traffic and dealing with the IndyCar version of the draft – which he considers “much more violent” than what he usually encounters in a stock car.

“It’s just a matter of anticipating what’s in front of you, getting a run on the guys,” said Busch, who will start 12th in the ‘500.’ “With the bigger packs out there, it dirties up the air. It makes you very busy inside the car.

“Today I was able to feel busy, to stay on top of the adjustments, and to communicate to the crew what I think I need for Sunday’s race.”

With his ‘500’ preparation now complete, Busch gave himself a B-minus grade for his Indy efforts while noting the traffic matter. He believes that he’ll need the first half of the race to get used to passing and letting his rivals “feel confident around [me].”

But that’s not keeping Busch from aiming for a high goal in his attempt to do the Double. In 2001, his NASCAR teammate and boss, Tony Stewart, finished sixth at Indy with Chip Ganassi and then third in the Coke 600 for Joe Gibbs.

A similar outcome would be a great performance from “The Outlaw,” who continues to sense that the spotlight on him is getting brighter and brighter.

“As each day gets closer, you’re getting more anxious to get it done because you’ve been preparing for so long, then experiencing so many new things,” he said.

“I’m the least prepared of the individuals who have done the Double. They’ve all come from the open-wheel world and settled into the NASCAR world. For me, the lack of experience in the IndyCar world is what makes this fun, exciting, challenging.

“At the end of the day, it’s just about giving it my best and not making a mistake on Sunday to try to get 1,100 miles in.”

Tomorrow, Busch will be back in Charlotte preparing for the Coke 600 with a pair of Sprint Cup practice sessions (9:30-10:20 a.m. ET, 1-2 p.m. ET) before the Nationwide Series stages its 300-mile race. Busch will start 28th in the ‘600’ on Sunday night.

THROUGH THE YEARS: The Double on Memorial Day Weekend

1994 – John Andretti
Indy 500: Finished 10th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 36th

1997 – Robby Gordon
Indy 500: Finished 29th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 41st

1999 – Tony Stewart
Indy 500: Finished 9th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 4th

2000 – Robby Gordon
Indy 500: Finished 6th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 35th

2001 – Tony Stewart
Indy 500: Finished 6th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 3rd (First and only time all 1,100 miles have been completed)

2002 – Robby Gordon
Indy 500: Finished 8th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 16th

2003 – Robby Gordon
Indy 500: Finished 22nd…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 17th

2004 – Robby Gordon
Indy 500: Finished 29th…Coca-Cola 600: Finished 20th.

*Davy Jones attempted to run The Double in 1995, but failed to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600. He finished 23rd at Indy.

(Updated) NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations immediately, cancels NHRA Summernationals

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

UPDATE: Hatcher reached out again to NBC Sports later Wednesday afternoon with an addendum that could be promising for race fans in other markets: “Upon hearing the news about the Englishtown track, we’ve received a significant level of interest from other track operators about hosting a national event in 2018.  We’re not sure if this is possible for 2018, but we’re definitely looking into it, if not for 2018, then perhaps for 2019.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”